The U.S. has one of the highest legal drinking ages in the world, yet binge drinking in teens remains a stubborn problem that accounts for an increasing number of injuries linked to drinking. More than 1,800 students die every year of alcohol-related causes such as drunk driving accidents. An additional 600,000 are injured while drunk, and nearly 100,000 become victims of alcohol-influenced sexual assaults, according to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).
“Young people are drinking less often than in the past, but when they’re drinking, they’re drinking much more intensely,” said NIAAA director George Koob, PhD. “This has led to more hospitalizations due to heavy intoxication.” In rare cases, such acute intoxication can case deadly alcohol poisoning. A January report issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 2,200 Americans over the age of 15 die from alcohol poisoning every year. But only 30% of those were alcoholics.
While long-term alcohol abuse can take a toll on the liver, heart and pancreas, occasional binge drinking can be more dangerous in the moment because the body has not built up a tolerance to alcohol, so it takes less alcohol to have an acute toxic effect on the body, according to Koob. Novice adolescent drinkers can easily enter the danger zone if they have no idea how much alcohol they’re consuming in, say, those mixed drinks at a house party or when they take swig after swig from a vodka bottle.
Overconsuming alcohol on a regular basis can lead to changes in the brain, which poses a particular risk to teens whose brains don’t fully develop until they reach the age of 25. “Our research has been focused on the prefrontal cortex, the area responsible for decision-making and controlling impulsivity,” Koob says. “Excessive alcohol can impair the development of this brain region, which is why we worry about alcohol use during this young period of a person’s life.”
Studies suggest that alcohol activates various systems of the developing teen’s brain. When drinking is done to excess it can lead to a depletion of the brain’s pleasure reward system and an overactive stress response, causing adolescents to seek out more alcohol to feel good and ease anxiety. “It’s a double whammy,” Koob says — one that’s more likely to lead to dependence and a loss of the ability to make smart choices.
Certain young adults are more likely than others to become binge drinkers — especially young people who have peers or parents who drink too much. Excess stress can also be a significant risk factor for both teens and adults. At least 30% of those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) drink excess alcohol regularly as a form of self medication, according to Koob.
Teens who don’t get enough sleep are also at higher risk of binge drinking. A February 2015 study from Idaho State University found that adolescents who reported sleep difficulties or lack of sleep were significantly more likely to binge drink, drive while intoxicated or engage in risky sexual behavior after alcohol consumption. The researchers found that every one-hour increase in sleep was associated with a 9% decrease in a teenager’s risk of binge drinking. “Poor sleep, both in terms of quantity and quality, is associated with poor self-control of negative emotions and cognitive processes that regulate problem-solving and decision-making behavior,” says study co-author Maria M. Wong, PhD, a professor and director of experimental training in the department of psychology at Idaho State University. “If children have sleep difficulties or poor sleep hygiene it’s important for parents to talk to them and find out the factors that may be causing the problems.”
Once teens head off to college, however, they often need tools to keep their risky behavior in check. Many schools have alcohol education programs to help teach students about the dangers of binge drinking. Boston College’s program — which trained faculty, dorm staff and student leaders on spotting substance abuse behaviors and making referrals to the college health center — reduced alcohol-related incidents in senior housing by 33% and incidents involving freshmen by 88% after it was implemented more than a decade ago.
In 2016, NIAAA plans to launch a new Website that lists the most successful and cost-effective alcohol abuse prevention programs on college campuses with details on how to implement them. Says Koob, “We’re hoping to have a large enough menu that schools can pick a program to implement that works best for them.”