The disturbing long-term effects of teen binge drinking have recently been spotlighted by scientists and researchers. What is teen binge drinking? The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines binge drinking as having four or more drinks for females and five or more for males over the space of a few hours. Among high school students who admit to drinking alcohol, 60 percent say they are binge drinkers.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking as anything that brings a person’s blood alcohol concentration to 0.08 percent or above.
Heavy binge drinkers can consume 10 to 15 drinks, easily meeting this 0.08 criteria. Binge drinking typically begins around age 13 and peaks between ages 18 and 22, before gradually decreasing.
Dr. Anita Varkey, who specializes in women’s health at Loyola, University reported new findings. According to her, three out of four high school seniors and two out of every five eighth graders have consumed alcohol. She noted that when kids drink, they drink heavily.
Thirty-six percent of youths ages 18 to 20 reported at least one binge-drinking episode during the past 30 days.
Each year, about 5,000 youths under age 21 die as a result of underage drinking, including 1,900 on the highways, 1,600 in homicides, 300 in suicides and hundreds in falls, burns, drownings, etc.
The more researchers study the effects of underage drinking, the more we are learning about the long-term health hazards. Underage drinking can have subtle effects on brains that are still developing, possibly affecting long-term thinking and memory skills. Underage drinking can cause liver damage, especially among drinkers who are overweight.
Another potential health hazard of binge drinking is increased risk for future osteoporosis and bone fractures.
A study by bone biologist John Callaci, PhD. reported in the July-August 2010 issue of the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism found long-lasting disruptions in hundreds of genes involved in bone formation in rats fed alcohol. “Lifestyle-related damage done to the skeleton during young adulthood may have repercussions lasting decades”, Dr. Callaci and his colleagues said. He warned that, while data from animals doesn’t necessarily translate to people, he believes the findings certainly suggest that this could be a problem with humans.
The aging process itself causes people to lose bone mass throughout adult life. Anything that inhibits the build up of bone during the critical teen and young adulthood years increases the chances of later developing osteoporosis and fractures.
Dr. Callaci has found that adolescent rats given alcohol in amounts comparable to that of binge drinkers had 15 percent less bone build-up than control rats given only saline solution.
A disturbing finding was that gene disruption was long-lasting. After 30 days without any alcohol, the genes of Dr. Callaci’s binging rats were still being shown to be different. (Thirty days in a rat’s lifespan is about equivalent to three years of a human lifespan.)
Another research team at Loyola has found even more serious and disturbing long-term effects as a result of teen binge drinking. Future depression and other mood disorders including high anxiety may result in the teen’s adult years.
This study, reported by Senior author Toni Pak, PhD and colleagues on November 15, 2010 at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in San Diego, found that giving adolescent rats binge amounts of alcohol permanently altered the system that produces hormones in response to stress.
These findings suggest a mechanism by which teenage binge drinking could cause mental health problems in adulthood, Pak said. “Exposing young people to alcohol could permanently disrupt normal connections in the brain that need to be made to ensure healthy adult brain function,” he said.
Humans and rats produce stress hormones in response to physical or psychological stress. In a “flight-or-fight” situation, for example, a burst of cortisol provides a rush of energy and a lowered sensitivity to pain, while suppressing functions that aren’t immediately needed, such as digestion. However, chronic exposure to cortisol and other stress hormones has been linked to depression, cardiovascular disease and other complications.
In the study, researchers exposed adolescent rats to an eight-day binge drinking pattern: three days of alcohol binging, two days off, then three more days of binging. On binge days, rats were injected with enough alcohol to raise their blood alcohol concentration to between 0.15 percent and 0.2 percent. (In humans such concentrations would be roughly 2 to 2.5 times higher than the 0.08 legal limit for driving.) A control group of rats received injections of saline.
One month later, when the rats were young adults, they were exposed to one of three regimens: saline injections, a one-time alcohol injection or a binge-pattern of alcohol exposure. Alcohol is a form of stress, so not surprisingly, the animals that had either a one-time or binge alcohol exposure produced more stress hormone.
A more significant finding was that among rats that had received alcohol during adolescence, there was significantly larger jump in corticosterone (the rat equivalent of cortisol) when they received alcohol during adulthood. These rats also had a lower base level of corticosterone than rats that had remained alcohol-free during adolescence. These findings suggest that alcohol exposure during puberty permanently alters the system by which the brain triggers the body to produce stress hormones.
There are other studies reporting more serious, long-term risks for teen binge drinking teens. The burden falls to parents, teachers and other adults to get the message to them that they aren’t just “messing up” for their “wild and crazy years,” but what they’re doing has long-range consequences they will come to regret.
“Binge-Drinking Teens May Risk Future Depression,” Newswise, Released 11/2/2010 but embargoed until 11/15/2010, http://www.newswise.com/articles/view/570359/?sc=mwhr&xy=7500251
“Midwasted: The state of binge drinking in our world,” by Scott Kleinberg, Red Eye, Chicago Now, 11/11/2010, http://www.chicagonow.com/tags/binge+drinking;+depression;+mood+disorders+@tcw;+@tcwlife
“Disturbing New Findings on Underage Binge Drinking,” by Dr. Anite Varkey, Life, Style & Wellness, Chicago Now, 7/28/10, http://www.chicagonow.com/blogs/todays-chicago-woman-life-style-wellness/2010/07/disturbing-new-findings-on-underage-binge-drinking.html