The New York Sun, New York, N.Y.
Thursday, May 10, 2007
by Sarah Garland
High school drinking parties and college beer pong tournaments could have effects on young people that last much longer than a headache the next day, researchers are learning.
A discovery that the brain continues to develop until early adulthood has launched a series of studies in recent years to examine the specific risks of alcohol for young drinkers, and the data gathered so far are cautionary. Growing evidence indicates that drinking alcohol is particularly harmful to young, developing brains and is accompanied by a host of other risks.
Researchers have found that youths who drink regularly are more likely to contract sexually transmitted diseases, have an unwanted pregnancy, smoke cigarettes, be assaulted sexually, and die as a result of a homicide, suicide, or car crash, according to a study released in January by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Young people who drink are also more likely to perform badly in school – with missing class to sleep off a hangover only one of many ways binge drinking can lead to academic troubles.
A study published last year in Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine showed that alcohol consumption may harm a young person’s memory, spatial skills, and ability to focus by damaging parts of the brain that control learning and memory.
The director of Wake Forest University’s Center for the Neurobehavioral Study of Alcohol, Dr. David Friedman, is leading a study looking at how alcohol affects young monkey brains, and says he expects the results to show that they are “uniquely vulnerable,” a fact, he notes, “that was known to car rental agencies long before the rest of us.”
“It’s relatively new looking at the teenage brain, period,” he said. “But it’s become really clear that adolescence is a period of great brain development to a scale that we didn’t ever realize before.”
College students who drink are likely to have started in high school, according to a recent Columbia University study, and also likely to continue the same binge drinking habits into their 30s, according to another study by the Child Health Institute at the University of Washington in 2005.
“It is a risk behavior that tends to persist well into adulthood,” the alcohol team leader at the Centers for Disease Control, Dr. Robert Brewer, said. “It doesn’t just go away.”
Drinking large amounts of alcohol too quickly can induce coma or death, the director of the Substance Abuse Division at Bellevue Hospital, Dr. Stephen Ross, says, but the main way that people die directly from alcohol consumption is choking on their own vomit.
Dr. Ross recently began an outpatient program for undergraduate students at Bellevue, where he has noticed a trend of students mixing alcohol with other drugs.
“These days it’s not just alcohol,” he said. “We see stuff in combination.”
Dr. Ross says that 60% of the students he has seen in the past four months use cocaine along with alcohol, a combination that creates a compound called cocaethylene. The mixture is a much more addictive and toxic substance “in terms of what it can do to the heart and the brain,” he said.
In 2005, alcohol and other drug use was responsible for 544 hospitalizations and 16 deaths among New Yorkers between the ages 13 and 20, according to the city’s Department of Health.
With the research on what alcohol does to young people beginning to pile up, the prevention research director at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Dr. Ralph Hingson, said he has been frustrated with the lack of action by local governments, colleges, and universities. “Colleges need to be paying attention,” he said. “Just because these problems loom so large doesn’t mean we can’t do something about it.”
Parents who host gatherings where alcohol is served to teenagers and those who fail to set standards about substance use enable unhealthy drinking, the director of the Parenting Institute and the Thriving Teens Project at New York University’s Child Study Center, Richard Gallagher, said. “When kids are getting ready to spend time with their friends, parents should remind them of the rules and regulations – and of the potential consequences they are likely to encounter,” Mr. Gallagher said, noting that parental involvement has been shown to delay by 12 to 18 months the age at which their children begin drinking alcohol.
The author of “Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood,” Koren Zailckas, said because New York City youths are more likely to hail a cab than they are to get behind the wheel after drinking alcohol, parents may feel insulated from some of the potentially catastrophic consequences of adolescent binge drinking.
“In the suburbs, parents’ biggest fear is that they’ll get a phone call that their son or daughter wrapped their car around a telephone pole,” she said. “New York parents are spared that nightmare, so they have a false sense of security.”
Yet parents are missing opportunities to influence their teenagers’ drinking habits, a professor of social and behavioral sciences at Boston University, William DeJong, said. “A lot of parents do check out because they are under the misperception that what they say about the issue no longer matters after a certain age,” Mr. DeJong, the director of the federal Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention, said. “In fact, if you talk to teens, they will say that what their parents say does matter – and that their parents have more influences on the choices they make than their peers do.”
When young people brag about binge drinking and its effects, it often leads their peers to overestimate how many, how much, and how often teenagers and young adults are drinking – what the chairman of the department of anthropology and sociology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, H. Wesley Perkins, calls a “reign of error.”
“If they think that everyone else is playing drinking games, they may feel nudged along or pressured to take their first, or second, or eighth drink,” he said.
The previous two installments in the series, on binge drinking in high schools and in colleges, are available at http://www.nysun.com/specials/drinking.php.