Healthbeat: Research highlights negative results of underage drinking
New Research Findings Highlight Negative Consequences of Underage Drinking
Alcohol does much more harm to the body than just damaging the liver.
Drinking also can weaken the immune system, slow healing, impair bone formation, increase the risk of HIV transmission and hinder recovery from burns, trauma, bleeding and surgery.
Alcohol can be especially hazardous to teens. Underage drinking increases the risks of unplanned and unsafe sex, poor performance in school, suicide and car accidents.
In the United States in 2009, about 3,000 teens ages 15 to 19 were killed and more than 350,000 were injured in motor-vehicle accidents. Of the drivers 20 and younger who died in accidents in 2008, 25 percent were legally intoxicated, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Alcohol use and binge drinking are widespread among teenagers and young adults. Consider these findings from the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health:
* Rates of current alcohol use (defined as at least one drink in the past 30 days) were 13 percent in 14- and 15-year-olds; 26.3 percent in 16- and 17-year-olds; 49.7 percent in people ages 18 to 20; and 70.2 percent in people ages 21 to 25.
* Binge drinking rates also increase as teens get older. Binge drinking rates were 7 percent in 14- and 15-year-olds; 17 percent in 16- and 17-year-olds; 34.7 percent in people ages 18 to 20 and 46.5 percent in people ages 21 to 25. (Binge drinking was defined as drinking at least five drinks within a few hours at least once in the past 30 days.)
* Full-time college students were more likely to binge drink and drink heavily than nonstudents and part-time students.
* One in four young adults between the ages of 21 and 25 admitted to driving under the influence of alcohol at least once during the past year.
* In 2009, about 10.4 million persons ages 12 to 20 reported drinking alcohol in the past month. This includes 6.9 million binge drinkers and 2.1 million heavy drinkers. (Heavy drinking was defined as drinking at least five drinks per day on at least five days during the past month).
Drinking and driving, unsafe sex and other short-term hazards of teen drinking are well known. Now, studies are finding that binge drinking also might put teens at risk for serious, long-term health problems.
A recent Loyola University Health System study found that exposing adolescent rats to binge amounts of alcohol permanently altered the endocrine system, which produces hormones in response to stress. This disruption in stress hormones might lead to behavioral and/or mood disorders such as depression in adulthood, researchers found. These findings suggest a mechanism by which teenage binge drinking could cause mental health problems in adulthood.
Another recent study at Loyola found long-lasting disruptions in hundreds of bone-formation genes in rats that had been exposed to binge drinking. Bone mass is lost throughout adult life as part of the aging process. Thus, anything that inhibits the build-up of bone mass during the critical years of adolescence and young adulthood could increase the risk of osteoporosis and fractures in later life. Adolescent rats exposed to alcohol in amounts comparable to that of binge drinkers had 15 percent less bone build-up than control rats exposed to saline solution.
As we continue to learn about the many negative effects of alcohol, we should redouble our efforts to curtail underage drinking.
Elizabeth J. Kovacs, Ph.D., is director of the Alcohol Research Program and associate director of the Burn & Shock Trauma Institute at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.
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