Medical Impact

The Medical Impact of Alcohol Use on your Teen

Alcohol affects teens differently than adults.

Physicians have long known that pre-adolescent and adolescent brains continue to develop into young adulthood. That's why the effect of drinking during these crucial teenage years of neurological development is so dangerous. In fact, recent studies indicate that teenage alcohol use may be as destructive to brain function as exposing a fetus to alcohol during pregnancy (1).

With as little as one drink, alcohol impairs normal brain function in adolescents significantly more than adults (1). Even occasional use of alcohol in adolescence can result in lifelong consequences.

In the spring of 2007, Surgeon General Kenneth Moritsugu issued a Call to Action To Prevent and Reduce Underage Drinking . This landmark report highlighted the critical nature of the health risks of underage drinking, and made it clear that alcohol use is a "major societal problem with enormous health and safety consequences. (1) To read the entire report, please visit:

Alcohol and your Teen's Brain:

The effects of alcohol on a teen's brain are disturbing, even at a relatively mild level of use. Recent studies show that alcohol consumption has the potential to trigger long­term biological changes that may have detrimental effects on the developing adolescent brain, including neuro-cognitive impairment (1). Alcohol interferes with memory formation and impairs the sensitivity of the brain to critical chemical functions in adolescents much more so than it does in adults. The prefrontal area of the brain (often referred to as the "CEO of the brain") plays a crucial role in personality and behavior development. This part of the brain undergoes dramatic development during adolescence, and alcohol use impedes this crucial development, with potentially lifelong negative effects (2).

Unintentional injury and death:

Because alcohol impairs the brain's ability to logically process information, form conclusions, and solve problems, it also plays a major role in teenage injuries and fatalities. Alcohol-related traffic crashes are the leading cause of death and disability among teenagers. Alcohol is also a major factor in other leading cause of death and injury to teens in the U.S. including homicide, suicide, burns, drowning, and falls (3).

Alcohol Dependence:

Adolescents who drink before age 15 are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence than those who begin drinking at age 21. Research has shown that 40% of kids who begin drinking before age 15 will develop alcohol abuse or dependence at some point in their lives. That proportion drops to below 10% for those who begin drinking after age 21 (3).

Emotional and psychological effects:

Alcohol impairs judgment, and has been linked strongly to teenage depression and suicide (4).

The risky business of underage drinking

  • The learning and memory centers of the adolescent brain are twice as vulnerable to alcohol as a fully developed adult brain (5).
  • Damage from alcohol use in the teen years can be long-term and irreversible (6).
  • Even low levels of alcohol use can decrease verbal ability in teens by as much as 10% (7).
  • Alcohol use in teens impedes the normal development of portions of the brain, sometimes permanently. Research has found that adolescents who drink for extended periods are more likely to have a smaller hippocampus then their peers who do not drink (7).

Underage drinking also contributes to:

  • Risky sexual behavior and unintended pregnancies (7)
  • Sexually transmitted diseases (STD's) such as genital herpes and AIDS (7)
  • Academic failure and dropping out of school (7)


1) Source: The Surgeon General's Call to Action To Prevent and Reduce Underage Drinking, U.S Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Services, Office of the Surgeon General, Rockville MD. and at

2) Crews FT, Braun CJ, Hoplight B Switzer RC, Knapp DJ (2000). Binge ethanol consumption causes differential brain damage in young adolescent rats compared with adult rats. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. 24(11): 1712-23.

3) Grant BE and Dawson DA (1997). Age at onset of alcohol use and association with DSM-IV alcohol abuse and dependence: Results from the National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiologic Survey. Journal of Substance Abuse. 9:103 - 110.

4) Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration. The Relationship Between Mental Health and Substance Abuse Among Adolescents. Rockville , MD : Author, 1999. And Alcohol Epidemiologic Data System. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. [Estimates for alcohol-related deaths by age and cause.] Unpublished data, 1999. Based on National Center for Health Statistics 1994 Mortality Data.

5) Pyapali GK, Turner DA, Wilson WA, and Swartzwelder, SH (1999). Age and dose-dependent effects of ethanol on the induction of hippocampal long-term potentiation. Alcohol . 19(2): 107-11.

6) Brown SA, Tapert SF, Granholm E, Delis DC (2000). Neurocognitive Functioning of Adolescents: Effects of Protracted Alcohol Use. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. 24(2): 164-171.

7) DeBillis MD, et al (2000). Hippocampal volume in adolescent-onset alcohol use disorders. American Journal of Psychiatry. 157(5): 737-744.