Schoolies week: bad for the body, bad for the brain

Few teen drinkers consider the harmful effects of alcohol on their developing brains. Flickr/Lost Albatross

In far-flung tourist destinations across Australia and overseas, people are managing and mopping up schoolies week, where secondary school graduates engage in a ritual of excessive alcohol consumption.

This cultural normalisation of teen drinking is at odds with preventative health policies that seek to reduce adolescent alcohol use and its harm to the developing brain.

Indeed, excessive alcohol use is one of three targets (together with tobacco use and obesity) that Australia has set a priority to prevent because of the cost and suffering it exacts on our nation.

But by their last year of secondary school (around age 17), the majority of Australian students (59% in 2011) report regular use of alcohol on at least a monthly basis.

Alcohol and the developing brain

The brain doesn’t fully mature until a person reaches their mid-20s. So adolescents drinking the same amounts as adults experience greater neurological changes and harms than older drinkers.

The adolescent brain also develops a tolerance to alcohol more rapidly than the adult brain.

This increased tolerance means that young people are able to drink larger amounts without succumbing to alcohol’s sedative effects, increasing the risk of alcohol dependence disorder later in life. With alcohol dependence disorder, alcohol tolerance has progressed to such an extent that a daily dose of alcohol is required to avoid withdrawal symptoms such as shakes, seizures or death.

Although young people can develop a tolerance to frequent and heavy use of alcohol, this doesn’t protect the adolescent brain from alcohol’s harmful effects.

Chronic adolescent alcohol misuse has been found to disrupt the frontal cortex and mid brain areas that contribute to memory and cognitive abilities that assist problem solving, visual memory and self-regulation, with increased vulnerability to the toxic effects of alcohol continuing until the mid-20s.

Heavy adolescent drinkers are at risk of problems that include: traumatic assault and injury, violence, and drinking heavily in pregnancy which can pass on foetal alcohol syndrome and symptoms to Australia’s next generation.

Breaking the habit

Increasing the price of alcohol and the level of regulations governing its sale and marketing, would help to reduce alcohol use problems across the Australian population.

Raising the legal age for purchasing alcohol from 18 to 21 would be very effective in reducing youth alcohol consumption.

In states that have raised the legal purchase age, parents and young people have received a clear message that adolescent alcohol use is harmful and youth alcohol problems have reduced.

And without changing the legal age, it is possible to effectively encourage young people to delay drinking until they reach the legal drinking age of 18, by reducing the supply of alcohol.

Parents are the major suppliers of alcohol to early adolescents. In a recently published study of more than 2,000 students from 24 disadvantaged secondary schools, our team demonstrated a 25% reduction in binge drinking in a two-year period. This was achieved by providing information to parents that discouraged them from supplying, supervising or allowing adolescent alcohol use.

Our team have also trialled a novel strategy to significantly reduce underage alcohol sales by implementing sales monitoring checks.

In 2012, underage sales practices were checked in over 300 bottle shops across 30 Australian communities. The majority sold alcohol to youth that looked underage.

We provided feedback regarding staff behaviour to the management of half of the outlets. When the checks were repeated in 2013, we found the feedback had resulted in significant reductions in the sale of alcohol to underage youth.

There are a number of effective strategies that can prevent adolescent alcohol use and related problems. These typically involve changing specific cultural factors such as laws and parent and community practices to reduce the supply of alcohol to young people.

We now have considerable scientific understanding of the effective policies. The next step will require national will to implement these effective prevention policies at a scale that can change our culture of harmful alcohol use.