Underage Drinking and the Brain

In the United States, the drinking age is 21. Many other countries, though, have a lower drinking age from 16-18, depending on hard liquor or beer or wine. Due to the various differences in the age of being able to consume alcohol, there has always been a lot of debate about whether or not the United States should lower their drinking age. What makes 21 the best age? Why is that the point of rational decision making when other countries allow for earlier starting points?

The CDC reported that 11% of all alcohol consumed in the United States was consumed by people ages 12-20. Which, of course, means that 11% of all alcohol consumed in the US is consumed illegally by underage persons. Generally, when underage persons drink alcohol, they are binge drinking which results in a lot of risky behavior. Often, underage people are hiding that they are drinking, furthering potential high risk because of being afraid to ask for help if needed.

Research has found that underage drinking and underage smoking of marijuana can alter epigenetics – which is the way genes are displayed or activated. This alteration affects brain development and growth. Additionally, there has been a link found between potential fathers drinking and their influence on the epigenetics of future children’s ability to drink, in regard to sensitivity to alcohol and affinity for drinking.

So, it comes to no surprise that additional genetic links have been found. The genetics have also been shifted in the emotional center of the brain in those who binge drink as an adolescent. This means that underage drinking can trigger the gene for anxiety, fear, stress, and a plethora of other psychological disorders and issues. A recent study also found that binge drinking as a adolescent  can result in a decrease of the protein that results in neural synapses Рessentially the protein that allows our brain to talk to different parts of the brain or body. In those who binge drank alcohol as an adolescent, their brains produced a non-coding protein, rendering it useless. If this protein is not produced enough, this can lead to underdevelopment of the brain as there are less neural pathways being made. Additionally, there is less amygdala growth, which is in charge of emotion regulation.

Ultimately, the drinking age to some people may not make sense. Especially as other countries have lower drinking ages than the United States. But, the brain is not fully developed until later in life and by lowering the drinking age, there is a strong possibility of hindering the brain development. Maintaining the drinking age of 21 results in allowing for greater brain development and healthier adults. By discouraging underage drinking, we are discouraging more than just consumption of alcohol.