Every year, thousands of teens and young adults celebrate Spring Break by drinking large amounts of alcohol — binge drinking — a dangerous right-of-passage for some and one linked to possible brain damage later as adults, says an expert.
While young people still make the final choice to drink or abstain, parents play a vital role in helping them make healthy decisions, says Dr. Alicia Ann Kowalchuk, medical director, Harris County Hospital District’s InSight, an early alcohol and drug intervention program, and assistant professor, Department of Family and Community Medicine, Baylor College of Medicine.
Binge drinking, defined as the consumption of four alcoholic drinks by males or three drinks by females in a day, could be a sign of alcohol dependency or addiction. Because the brain continues to develop through age 25, alcohol use, particularly episodes of binge drinking, severely affects the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for impulse control and decision making, she says.
“The developmental delay of this area of the brain caused by binge drinking can make it hard for young people to later as adults make healthy choices about acceptable alcohol use and impulse control, some being more prone to alcohol abuse and addiction,” Kowalchuk says.
Amounts for one standard drink are:
• 12 ounces of regular beer, ale or malt liquor
• 1.5 ounces or one “shot” of 80-proof whiskey, gin or vodka
• 5 ounces of wine
• 12 ounces of wine cooler
• 4 ounces of sherry, liqueur or aperitif
In the U.S., alcohol use is high among young people. Unfortunately, some teenagers and young adults use occasions like Spring Break to drink in excess, suffering alcohol poisoning or other health-related issues. Law enforcement agencies cite alcohol as a contributing factor in more than 50 percent of all suicide, homicide and motor vehicle accident cases involving young people.
“Alcohol impairs good judgment and exposes teens and young adults to make irrational decisions like drinking and driving, riding with someone who’s been drinking, engaging in unintended or unprotected sex or committing criminal activities,” Kowalchuk says.
She urges parents to have frank and consistent talks with their children early in life about the dangers of alcohol.
“If they hear anything that sounds middle of road, they hear ‘yes to drinking.’ Any ambiguity as a parent will be interpreted as an approval for drinking. The clear message needs to be that alcohol is not acceptable because it’s not safe or good for your developing brain,” she says.
Parents who waiver even slightly tend to lose credibility.
“Some parents will debate that maybe it’s better to have your children drink at home. They reason that by providing the alcohol, they can control what their teens are drinking and where. However, it’s only a false sense of security. In reality, it’s the opposite,” Kowalchuk says.
Research has shown that lenient drinking attitudes at home tend to lead to higher drinking rates.
“They hear the implicit approval of their drinking, and even if you control the alcohol use while they’re with you, they’re that much more likely than their peers in non-permitting homes to drink more when unsupervised and not around their parents,” she says.
The Harris County Hospital District recommends people with alcohol problems seek immediate care from their primary care physician. For more information on the topic, visit the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.