Drinking young can have adverse biological effects. This understanding informs a mandated drinking age in countries, with some debate over the age at which one could start. Some nations allow their youths to start drinking at 16 whilst others, 21.
The impact of alcohol consumption on health have long been investigated. Recently, however, researchers in Australia and the UK have tried to offer a level of clarity by examining its risks with respect to three key stages in life. Namely, the period of ‘Gestation’, from conception to birth, ‘Adolescence’, categorised as the ages between 15 and 19, and finally ‘Older Adulthood’ which comprises of individuals over the age of 65.
During these periods, individuals go through dynamic and significant brain changes. This could perhaps be why they are particularly susceptible to the harmful effects of alcohol. Let’s evaluate each period of time, individually-
It is common knowledge that it is medically recommended that you do not drink when pregnant, as during this period everything a mother consumes passes through her blood, through the placenta, and into the foetus’ system. As the alcohol is metabolized and broken down by the liver, the last organs to develop in utero, it makes the foetus especially vulnerable to the toxic effects of alcohol. These effects include minor learning disabilities to foetal alcohol syndrome which is known to have both physiological and neurological effects.
Currently, the global statistics of pregnant women consuming alcohol is 10%. The heavy use of alcohol during pregnancy has also been shown to cause foetal alcohol spectrum disorder associated with a decrease in what is known as brain volume and in many cases, cognitive impairment. Even moderate or low consumption of alcohol during gestation is linked to significantly poorer psychological and behavioural development in the child.
Experimenting with alcohol and tolerance to alcohol is fairly common during adolescence. At present, more than 20% of 15–19-year-olds in Europe and higher-income countries report at least occasional binge drinking (60 g of ethanol in a single sitting). During adolescence, the rate of brain development, although fast, is incredibly formative, making this demographic particularly vulnerable to the biological costs of alcohol. Excessive drinking during this time is known to harm short and long-term memory retention, controlled by the hippocampus. It is also known to affect additional brain structures which can be found here.
Legality of the consumption and purchase of alcohol, often informed by political and rarely scientific notions, thwart people from questioning its biological impacts. Studies suggest that binge drinking during adolescence can be associated with critical changes to brain function, such as reduced brain volume, poorer white matter development, and moderate deficits in a range of cognitive functions.
During Older Adulthood
Formative neurological development is restricted to adolescence. However, alcohol can still be harmful post this stage. Alcohol disorders are rather rare amongst the older population. Recent publications have nonetheless identified alcohol use disorders to be one of the strongest modifiable risk factors for all types of dementia (particularly early-onset) compared with other established risk factors such as high blood pressure or smoking.
This study helps us identify stages of life where alcohol effects can substantially alter brain functions and, with hope, could aid in understanding the full effects before consumption!
“Lifetime perspective on alcohol and brain health” by Louise Mewton, Briana Lees, Rahul Tony Rao.
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Edited by Malavika Ramanand