Underage Drinking: The Risks Explained

The Dangers of Underage Drinking

Underage drinking is simply when anyone under the minimum legal drinking age consumes alcohol. This poses major risks and unfortunately very many adolescents and teens are drawn to the allure of doing what they shouldn’t be doing. Quite often they don’t even have any idea about the damaging effects drinking alcohol can cause and how it can affect their actions.

How old do you have to be to drink alcohol in U.S.?

You must be at least 21 years old to drink alcohol in the U.S. This age limit is in place to protect the health of the kids and also reduce the number of accidents on the road caused by underage drinking.

There has been a lot of debate on what the legal drinking age should be. Before the mid-1980s, it was set at 18, but it was soon after raised to 21 primarily to reduce the number of highway fatalities that occurred as a consequence of underage drinking. However, the 21 age limit has not stopped minors from drinking, and some experts even believe it has contributed to excessive consumption of alcohol and are pushing for the age limit to be reversed back to 18.

It is argued that lowering the age limit will make kids safer as the current age limit has only succeeded in driving drinking underground, behind closed doors into the riskiest and least manageable of settings e.g. basements, fraternity homes, etc. These are the places where kids go to hide from the law and adults who would have taught them a lesson or two in moderation. Underage drinking has always been a contentious issue, and people have always been of different opinions concerning the present underage drinking laws. Whether the age limit is set at 18 or 21, the science points to the fact that the damages and effects of alcohol on the still-developing brains of adolescents are significant.

Effects of Underage Drinking On the Developing Brain

Underage alcohol consumption can cause damage to a person’s developing brain in many ways. Alcohol slows down the functioning of the brain and can lead to cognitive functional impairment. It can also affect a person’s judgment skills, balance, and anger levels.

Alcohol affects the brain of anybody who consumes it in one way or another. Regardless of the age, sex or ethnicity of the consumer. The problem with underage drinking, however, lies in the fact that the brain is still developing in people between the ages of 21 and 25 so alcohol consumption can have lasting effects on their brain and they are also not experienced enough to handle the indirect consequences of alcohol on their actions.

Most Addictions Have Roots in Teens

Alcohol, even though it’s legal on some level, has the characteristics of a drug and, adult or not, care has to be taken with its consumption. It is important to note that what matters the most is not how many drinks you take but the concentration of alcohol in those drinks and this, in turn, translates to the blood alcohol concentration of the body. When alcohol is consumed, about 20% is absorbed immediately from the stomach, and the other 80% is absorbed in the small intestine. After this the alcohol-containing blood is circulated through our body, eventually reaching the central nervous system in a short amount of time.

Alcohol acts primarily on the nerve cells within the brain and interferes with communication between nerve cells and other cells thus slowing everything down. This affects emotion, judgment, balance, speech and anger levels. It affects various key areas of the brain and their functions, and some of these effects are translated into some of the behaviors we have seen in people and young adults who have had a little too much to drink.

The cerebral cortex controls the senses and inhibitions and as a result of alcohol intake we often see a more self-confident and less socially inhibited persona which is a dangerous mix for kids and young adolescents. The cerebral cortex also controls our thought processes, so alcohol affects our ability to make good judgments or think clearly.

The frontal brain lobes are important for planning, forming ideas, making decisions and self-control so when alcohol affects the frontal lobes, it becomes difficult to control urges, and we thus proceed to act without caution.

Exposing the central nervous system to alcohol negatively impacts a person’s coordination, awareness, and ability to make decisions, all of which are controlled by the cerebellum. This is why you see inebriated people have little or no control over their balance, no eye-hand coordination and find it difficult to function as a person.

The part of the brain in charge of storing memories, called the hippocampus, is also heavily impacted by alcohol consumption and when that happens you may have trouble remembering something you just heard or even worse you may experience a total blackout and have no recollection of the events that transpired at the time. If alcohol consumption becomes excessive and it damages the hippocampus, it may become difficult to learn and remember things in the future.

The hypothalamus is a small part of the brain that does an amazing amount of housekeeping chores which is why high blood pressure, need to urinate, thirst and hunger are all common symptoms during alcohol consumption. The body temperature and heart rate, however, decrease. This, in combination with the impairment in the functions of the medulla to control heartbeat and body temperature, can result in a condition known as hypothermia if alcohol is consumed in excess in cold weather.

Dangers of Underage Drinking

There is an astonishing amount of abuse of alcohol by underage people, and when these kids drink alcohol, they immediately become a danger to themselves and to the immediate environment and people they come in contact with. They become a danger to the police officers who come to speak to them, dangerous to the neighbors where the parties are held and dangerous to motorists on the road where they drive. Even with the best kids, the introduction of alcohol presents an opportunity for them to make very bad decisions which can negatively affect a lot of people. Alcohol affects people of all ages negatively but it is more likely for an underage person to act without caution, and it is certainly easier for the alcohol to affect them more as they haven’t yet built the tolerance levels required for them to hold their liquor. There are so many risk factors associated with underage drinking, but some of the prominent ones are as follows:

  • Sexual abuse.
  • Impaired driving leading to fatal car crashes.
  • Violent behavior and aggressiveness.
  • Permanent and chronic damage to key areas of the brain.
  • Alcohol addiction.

Some Key Facts And Figures

  • According to the Arizona Youth Survey in 2008, 24% of 8th graders, 39% of 10th graders and 47% of 12th graders in Arizona have claimed that they drank alcohol at least once in the last 30 days.
  • 40% of those who start drinking before the age of 15 will become alcoholics at some point in their lifetime.
  • 1% of 15-year-olds have reported having had at least one drink in their lives.
  • Approximately 5.4 million people (about 14.2%) ages 12-20 engaged in binge drinking. (15.8% of males and 12.4% of females).

Underage Drinking Statistics

What are the statistics of underage drinking in the U.S.?

  • 1/3 of drunk driving deaths happen to 16-20 people ages 16-20 years old
  • There are about 10.8 million underage drinkers in the U.S
  • One in every 16 teenagers binge drinks
  • Only 1 in 100 parents believe that his or her teenaged child binge drinks

These facts show the level to which underage drinking is occurring and how much of a problem it poses.

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