Academic journal article Alcohol Research

Alcohol's Effects on Adolescents

Academic journal article Alcohol Research

Alcohol's Effects on Adolescents

Article excerpt

During adolescence, many people begin to experiment with alcohol, yet relatively little is known about alcohol's effects on this critical stage of development. We do know that early initiation of alcohol use remains one of the most powerful predictors of later alcohol abuse (Grant 1998). We also know that during adolescence changes occur in the regions of the brain involved in modulating drug reinforcement, so it cannot be assumed that factors precipitating alcohol use or abuse are the same in adolescence as in adulthood. Rapidly changing body systems often are particularly vulnerable to disruption, and hence long-term consequences may result from alcohol exposure during this time of accelerated neural and endocrine system maturation (Spear 2000a). For all of these reasons, adolescence is a critical stage of development, and additional research is warranted into the effects of drinking during this important transition period. This sidebar briefly reviews findings on how alcohol affects adolescents, with a special emphasis on the impact of alcohol on neural and endocrine development. Though the research in this area is scarce, gender-specific effects are highlighted whenever possible.

Epidemiology of Drinking Among Adolescents

Results from national surveys of adolescents and young adults show that alcohol use is prevalent among both young men and women. The prevalence of drinking and binge drinking (consuming five or more drinks on a single occasion in the previous 2 weeks) is higher among male students relative to their female peers, but data from the Monitoring the Future Survey (MFS) (Johnston et al. 2002)-a nationally representative sample of 8th, 10th, and 12th graders-show that the gender gap is closing. For example, in 2001, 36 percent of 12th grade males reported binge drinking, compared with 24 percent of their female counterparts (a 12-percentage-point difference). However, in 1975 there was a 23-percentage-point difference between rates of male and female binge drinking (Johnston et al. 2002). Among females, 20.6 percent of 8th graders and 45.1 percent of 12th graders reported using alcohol in the 30 days prior to the survey (i.e., 30-day prevalence); of those 8th grade females, more than half reported binge drinking.

Early Initiation of Alcohol Use

This early alcohol use may have potentially long-lasting consequences. Early onset of alcohol or other drug use is one of the strongest predictors of later alcohol dependence (Grant 1998). Although young men are significantly more likely than young women to report using alcohol before age 13 (34.2 percent versus 24.2 percent) (Grunbaum et al. 2002), survey data suggest that, over time, the age of initiation to alcohol use among young women has decreased. For example, in 1975, 42 percent of female high school seniors reported first using alcohol before 10th grade, compared with 53 percent in 1993 (the last year for which the specific question was asked) (Johnston et al. 2001).

Two possible explanations exist to describe the relationship between early alcohol use and later dependence. First, exposure to alcohol or other drugs during adolescence may alter critical ongoing processes of brain development that occur at that time, increasing the likelihood of problems with alcohol later in life. Indeed, heavy drinking during early and mid-adolescence has been found to be associated with memory problems and other neuropsychological deficits, although the causality of this relationship has yet to be determined (Brown et al. 2000). Another interpretation for the early exposure effect is that early use of alcohol or other drugs might simply serve as a marker, not a precursor, for a later abuse disorder. For instance, a preteen's tendency to seek out new experiences (i.e., high novelty-seeking behavior) was found to be predictive of alcohol abuse at age 27 (Cloninger et al. 1988). Strong novelty-seeking behavior is one of a number of traits that have been linked to early initiation of alcohol and other drug use (Baumrind 1987). …

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