DOES ALCOHOL DAMAGE THE BRAINS OF YOUNG DRINKERS?

LONDON. — Let’s be clear: alcohol is a toxin. Its dangers span fatal accidents, liver disease, and many kinds of cancer.

Even small quantities can be carcinogenic, leading the World Health Organisation to declare that “when it comes to alcohol consumption, there is no safe amount that does not affect health”.

Few activities are completely risk-free, though, and the dangers tend to be weighed against the pleasures that alcohol can bring. 

Health policies are, therefore, guided by the principle of damage limitation with moderate drinking. 

In the US this is defined as having no more than two drinks a day for men, and no more than one drink a day for women — with many other countries offering similar guidance. 

Although beer and wine are commonly seen as safer drinks, as the US guidance states, the type of drink is not the important factor — instead, it’s the amount of alcohol consumed.

Legislation around the age of purchasing alcohol follows a similar logic of damage limitation: the laws protect children, while allowing young adults to make their own choices. 

In most nations, the minimum age is 18 years, in the US it is 21.

There are, however, numerous reasons why alcohol may be more dangerous for younger people, even after they have passed the legal minimum drinking age. 

One is body size and shape, teenagers don’t reach their adult height until 21, and even after they have stopped growing vertically, they may lack the bulk of someone in their 30s or 40s. 

“Drinking one glass of alcohol therefore results in a higher blood alcohol content for young people than for adults,” says Ruud Roodbeen, a post-doctoral researcher at Maastricht University.  The adolescents’ lean frame is also characterised by a higher head-to-body ratio. 

When you drink alcohol, it enters your bloodstream and spreads through your body.

Within five minutes, it reaches your brain, easily crossing the blood-brain barrier that generally protects the brain from harmful substances. 

“A relatively large part of the alcohol ends up in the brains of young people, and that is yet another reason why young people are more likely to get alcohol poisoning,” Roodbeen says.

Given the scientific evidence, should Governments set the legal minimum age to 25 or over — once the brain has stopped developing? 

Experts point out that it’s not that simple, since the public health benefits need to be balanced against people’s perceptions of personal liberty.

“I think there’s this very little public appetite for a drinking age of 25,” says James MacKillop, who studies addictive behaviour at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. 

“High minimum legal ages are perceived as paternalistic, and they can be seen as hypocritical if the legal age of majority for voting, or the legal age to serve in the military, is 18 or 19.” — BBC.

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