For all the attention prescription drug addiction gets, the greatest drug problem still involves “medication” that’s even easier to obtain. Two million Americans struggle with prescription drug addiction involving opiate painkillers—but over 15 million adults and 623,000 adolescents have alcohol use disorder. And despite drinking-age laws, 20.3% of 12–20-year-olds consume alcohol each month.
Those underage drinkers, plus the 21–25-year-old crowd whose brains are still maturing, merit special concern. The long-term effects of heavy alcohol consumption do no one’s heart, stomach, liver or brain any good, but special risks are involved with teens and young adults.
1. Still-developing brains are highly vulnerable to permanent cognitive impairment.
It’s important to note that, while legal drinking age nearly everywhere is 21, the human brain continues to hone its natural impulse-control, organization and planning skills until about age 25. Regular intake of an intoxicating drug can interfere with this process and keep some cognitive functions from ever developing to full potential. Even three weeks after detox, youngsters diagnosed with alcohol dependence show poorer memory and spatial skills than their nondrinking peers. MRI brain scans indicate that the hippocampus, the section responsible for long-term memory and spatial navigation, rarely develops to full size in people who become problem drinkers at young ages.
On top of that, the natural impulsiveness and risk-taking tendencies of adolescent brains put young adults at greater risk for binging or show-off drinking. And since youngsters aged 16–22 are also likely to be making their first major long-term life plans, even in purely practical terms this is a bad time to experience temporary cognitive impairment on any regular basis.
2. Those who start drinking young are more likely to become addicted.
When teenage impulsiveness leads to experimenting with alcohol, it can easily create a vicious circle: drinking too much leads to ongoing cognitive impairment, which leads to poor judgment, which leads to more reckless drinking. If this keeps up for long, it’s a recipe for all-out addiction that can be remedied only with full alcohol detox and permanent abstinence.
It’s not just purely physical addiction that’s cause for concern, either. Teenagers and young adults are prone to mood swings and are typically unsure of themselves—and depression, low self-confidence and feeling inferior are common triggers for drinking as emotional self-medication, the sort of drinking that’s most likely to lead to addiction. Even after successful alcohol detox, ongoing natural changes in young-adult brains and bodies continue to create increased relapse risk.
3. When heavy drinking begins at an early age and continues for the long term, damage to internal organs accumulates.
Many adolescents begin alcohol abuse early enough that not only brain development, but physical growth and hormonal development are still in progress. Drinking alcohol frequently and in heavy amounts can confuse the hormones and impair proper development of reproductive organs, bones and muscles. And even in teenagers, overweight-plus-alcohol is a high-risk combination for liver damage.
At the very least, the earlier someone starts drinking the more years they’ll likely keep it up; and the more years alcohol is consumed at problem levels, the more time it has to do silent damage to vital organs. Perhaps the fact that most problem drinkers start young partly explains why people diagnosed with alcohol use disorder have average life expectancy of under 60 years.
4. Underage drinkers are more likely to be involved in alcohol-related traffic accidents and other activities that could do lasting damage.
Combine youthful impulsiveness with the judgment-inhibiting effects of alcohol, and you have a disaster waiting to happen—perhaps a disaster that could create the long-term effect of living in a wheelchair or with a chronic STD.
- Drinkers who start young are seven times more likely than anyone else to be involved in alcohol-related car crashes; 8.2% of high school students admit to having driven under the influence; and 60–70% of young drivers involved in fatal DUI accidents hadn’t bothered to fasten their seat belts.
- In the majority of “unprotected” or promiscuous sexual activities among college students, at least one partner is under the influence of alcohol.
- Being under the influence of alcohol increases the chance of engaging in almost every form of dangerous behavior, from taking (or making) extravagant dares to starting physical fights.
Don’t give alcohol—or any other drug—a chance to do more damage by procrastinating in seeking a detox program. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration recognizes nearly two dozen rehab centers in Orange County (CA) alone—there’s bound to be a convenient facility that fits your family’s needs.
If you’re the parent of a problem drinker who’s legally dependent on you, you have the right to assert your authority and insist he or she get detox treatment—but do it with concern and respect, not with an “I’m the boss and I won’t have you disgracing me like this” attitude. And be sure your entire family participates in post-detox therapy: like it or not, there are almost certain to be some things you should stop or start doing.
If your child is over the legal age of independence (18 in California), you’ll have to express your concerns more delicately—they’re probably still carrying “always nagging me” feelings from school days. Avoid any attempt to bully them into treatment: tell them, backed by objective evidence and preferably other people they respect, what worries you and what detox program you recommend they enter. If they refuse, let them know you’ll be there when they’re ready, but won’t support their drinking habit by giving them money or covering for them in a tough spot. And get therapy and a peer support group for yourself.
And if you’re the under-25-year-old with the drinking problem—if you’re still young enough to have a legal guardian, ask them or another trusted adult for help immediately. If you’re living independently, do the responsible adult thing: research the best alcohol detox centers, arrange for time off, and check yourself in for treatment. Don’t delay. There’s one more long-term effect of addiction you should know about: the longer you wait for detox, the more of a struggle you’ll have. Get clean while you still have most of your life ahead of you!
Inland Detox is the top place for inpatient drug rehab in the Los Angeles and San Diego vicinity. If you or your teenager struggle with alcohol addiction, please call (888) 739-8296 for more information.