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Thu, Oct. 17

Guest column - Alcohol much more damaging to adolescents than you might think

Alcohol ‹ found in wine coolers, beer, wine, and liquor ‹ is the most widely used and abused drug. Although drinking alcohol is illegal for people under age 21, alcohol is also the primary drug with which teens experiment.

Alcohol depresses the central nervous system and is absorbed primarily through the small intestine and stomach wall. Therefore, the body absorbs alcohol more quickly if it is consumed on an empty stomach and its effects are felt almost immediately because alcohol requires no digestion. Alcohol impairs judgment, lowers inhibitions, and increases aggressive behavior. The way alcohol affects a person is influenced by factors such as sex, height, weight, body size, muscle-to-fat ratio, and medical conditions. These basic facts about alcohol are true for anyone who consumes alcohol, but the impact on the teenage body can be much more profound.

Young people are still maturing physically. Their systems cannot eliminate alcohol from the body as quickly as an adult. Underage drinkers risk stunting the growth of their brains, heart, liver, pancreas, kidneys, and bones. For those concerned about their appearance, drinking makes the skin look gray and dehydrated. Skin blotches may appear, as well as other signs of premature aging.

The human brain does not stop developing until approximately 21 years of age. During these 21 years, the human brain encodes, programs, wires, connects, and develops its basic capacities. Medical studies have shown that one of the most critical times of brain development occurs during the teenage years. In addition to the pre-natal and the first five years, the human brain is at increased risk during the teen years. When the teenage brain is exposed to the effects of alcohol, the alcohol can block the brain's ability to complete its development. Once the brain is deprived of its chance to finish development, there is no going back. The teen may never reach his or her full potential as an adult. The teenage brain is a work in progress.

The adolescent brain is much more vulnerable to alcohol-induced learning and memory impairments than adults because of the disruption in the hippocampus and frontal lobes. Also, the teen brain is less vulnerable to the sedative effects of alcohol and less vulnerable to the effects that impair motor coordination. As a result, the adolescent does not feel "impaired." Because they do not feel impaired, they are far more likely to keep drinking than adults therefore increasing their risks for cognitive impairments and brain damage.

Another consequence of alcohol abuse is alcohol poisoning. A person may drink more than their system can handle and die. Once again, young people are the most likely to die from alcohol poisoning because their internal systems cannot eliminate the alcohol as quickly.

Minor consumption is illegal in Arizona. It does not matter if the youth has one sip or several drinks, if they drink at home or in some outdoor area. Possession of alcohol is also illegal, rather the alcohol is in their body, in the back pocket of their jeans, or they are holding it for a friend.

Parents and the adults in the teen's life have a responsibility to educate their child about the very real consequences of underage drinking. The choice to drink before the age of 21 can result in a price no one is prepared to pay. Remember, the teenage brain is a work in progress and each of us can assist that progress by discouraging adolescent drinking and helping each teen reach his or her full potential as an adult.

For more information about alcohol or any other drug, please contact the Williams Alliance Against Drug Abuse/Citizens Against Substance Abuse at (928) 779-5361.

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