How Lower Drinking Ages Affect Mental Development and Potential Abuse Late in Life

Millions of Americans drink alcohol on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis. Though many of these men and women are of legal drinking age and consume alcohol responsibly, there are many others under the age of 21 who engage in this behavior. Some reports estimate those aged 12 to 20 ingest over 10 percent of all alcoholic beverages consumed in our country.

Unfortunately, the majority of this behavior involves young people binge drinking. Most underage drinkers are also increasingly likely to drink more on each occasion than their adult counterparts. This excessive drinking among minors results in hundreds of thousands of emergency room visits and, tragically, thousands of untimely deaths. The consequences of underage drinking are vast and can lead to social issues, problems in school, legal trouble and increased risk of physical harm.

Even for minors who drink and continue to live their lives normally without suffering from any apparent alcohol-related issues, many of these children and young adults may be negatively impacting their mental development and increasing the likelihood that they may abuse alcohol later in life. Underage drinking can lead to significant cognitive issues affecting learning, memory and coordination, and also place the individual at a higher risk to abuse illicit drugs and engage in other forms of unhealthy, risky behavior.

Legal Drinking Ages Around the World

At what age is it appropriate for young adults to legally drink? When comparing the legal drinking ages in countries across the globe, the majority of the world shares a similar opinion. Out of the 190 countries cited, the minimum legal drinking age is 18 to 19 years old for 116 of them. This 61 percent majority far outranks the next closest percentile, which shows 20 countries, or 11 percent, list 16 to 17 years old as the minimum legal drinking age.

Compared to the United States, 162 countries have lower legal drinking ages. This amount totals 86 percent of the countries listed, with an additional 8 percent banning alcohol consumption for citizens at any age.

The United States is only in the company of 11 other countries that list the minimum legal drinking age at 21 — these countries include Iraq, Sri Lanka, Mongolia and Oman. Iceland, Thailand, Uzbekistan, Japan and Paraguay are closest to the U.S. drinking age, allowing those aged 20 or older to consume alcohol legally. Surprisingly, two countries have their minimum legal drinking age set between 10 and 15, while 19 other nations report no minimum legal drinking age.

Minimum legal drinking age laws define the age when an individual can consume alcohol legally. However, this does not necessarily mean these are safe ages for children, teens or young adults to be drinking, responsibly or otherwise. Research shows those who begin drinking earlier in life have a greater tendency to abuse alcohol, compared to those who wait until they are 21. Alcohol abuse rates around the world show an earlier drinking age's effect on adult alcohol abuse.

Alcohol Abuse Rates Around the World

Does the minimum legal drinking age correlate with increased rates of alcohol abuse? The World Health Organization assessed the prevalence of alcohol abuse disorders for males and females aged 15 and above throughout 190 countries.

Here are the top five countries with the highest prevalence of males with alcohol use disorders.

  1. Russian Federation: 16.29 percent, 18 minimum legal drinking age
  2. Hungary: 15.29 percent, 18 minimum legal drinking age
  3. Republic of Moldova: 14.08 percent, 18 minimum legal drinking age
  4. Lithuania: 13.35 percent, 18 minimum legal drinking age
  5. Republic of Korea: 13.1 percent, 19 minimum legal drinking age

In comparison, the United States ranks at 5.48 percent for males.

Here are the top five countries with the highest prevalence of females with alcohol use disorders.

  1. Australia: 2.61 percent, 18 minimum legal drinking age
  2. Russian Federation: 2.58 percent, 18 minimum legal drinking age
  3. Norway: 2.55 percent — the on-premise age for beer and wine purchases is 18, while the on-premise age for spirits is 20.
  4. Colombia: 2.55 percent, 18 minimum legal drinking age
  5. Hungary: 2.27 percent, 18 minimum legal drinking age

In contrast, the United States ranks at 1.92 percent for females.

These statistics seem to suggest a connection between a lower drinking age and alcohol abuse for men and women. However, it's essential to note that countries with a legal minimum drinking age below 18 have been found to be less prevalent in their abuse rates. Antigua and Barbuda have rates similar to the United States, with percentages for men and women listed at 5.81 and 1.12, respectively.

Would the rates of alcohol abuse increase if the U.S. government lowered the legal drinking age? Medical professionals and researchers have debated the issue, presenting evidence that supports both arguments. Advocates of a lower drinking age believe age limits don't prevent youth from drinking. Lowering the age will allow teens and college students to drink in a safe and controlled space. It may also help decrease the binge-drinking culture and help teach these young adults how to enjoy alcohol responsibly.

On the other hand, many believe lowering the drinking age will be harmful to adolescents. Allowing those under the age of 21 to drink alcohol legally puts them at risk of negatively impacting their mental development. Studies show out of the 14 million people who develop an alcohol dependency, 95 percent of them began drinking alcohol before age 21. Those who start drinking alcohol before age 14 have more than a 40 percent chance of developing an alcohol addiction later in life.

How Alcohol Affects the Adult Brain

When an individual increases their blood alcohol level, they become inebriated. Whether it's a 12-year-old or a 40-year-old, both individuals will get drunk if they consume too much alcohol. However, it's vital to realize the same amount of alcoholaffects a developing brain much more drastically than a developed adult brain. When an adult reaches a BAC level of 0.12, their mental functioning becomes impaired. By 0.2, their mental functioning will become severely impaired, if not wholly lost. At 0.3 or higher, unconsciousness or death could occur.

Though any individual who becomes intoxicated may experience these side effects, children and teenagers may notice these symptoms much more severely at a much lower BAC level. In animal trials, studies have shown adolescent rats and adult rats demonstrate different levels of impairment. Although alcohol had less of a noticeable impact on the balance and coordination of adolescent rats, researchers discovered the substance had a greater effect on their memory and learning. The way alcohol affects human children and teenagers is much more significant.

How Alcohol Impacts Children

Alcohol is toxic for children at nearly every stage of their development, even in the womb. When a mother consumes any amount of alcohol, the fetus receives the same blood alcohol content. Because a developing baby cannot metabolize the alcohol, it interferes with their development and causes cognitive defects. Alcohol continues to be extremely harmful to children as they move through their developing years. If a young child drinks, they could suffer central nervous system damage, seizures and even death. No amount of alcohol is safe for a child.

Despite this fact, it doesn't stop parents from allowing their young children to ingest alcohol. One study discovered one in every six parents lets their child try alcohol before the age of 14, despite medical advice strongly suggesting no child under the age of 15 should consume the substance. It's understandable for parents to want to teach their children responsible drinking practices, and allowing them to taste alcohol could remove the mystique behind the activity. Unfortunately, this could cause more damage.

The drinking habits children have before their adolescent years directly impact their drinking habits in their teenage and young adult years. Even consuming small amounts of alcohol can lead to future unhealthy behaviors. One study found children whose parents gave them sips of alcohol in the sixth grade were at an increased risk of future drinking. These children were five times more likely to drink in high school and four times more likely get drunk or binge drink in their teenage years.

How Alcohol Impacts Teens

Although alcohol does not have the immediate debilitating effects on teenagers as it does on young children, it can still be just as detrimental to their mental development. Indeed, teens suffer more cognitive harm from drinking than adults. Because the bodies of teenagers and young adults are not fully developed, they are unable to ingest and process alcohol as effectively as a fully developed body can. There is a link between drinking age and brain development, as well. Introducing alcohol to the body during these essential developmental stages can lead to permanent brain damage.

Teenage drinking can irreversibly damage cognitive functioning, negatively impacting the memory, coordination and motor skills of a young adult for the rest of their lives. The toxic effects of alcohol may even influence cognition uniquely in each gender. For example, scientists believe teenage boys who drink may damage their attention spans and focus, while teen girls who consume alcohol may have trouble with comprehending and interpreting visual information.

Alcohol can rewire the brain of young adults who binge drink. Because the human brain can continue to develop up until the age of 30 for some individuals, heavy drinking can influence that development and permanently change the brain's ability to function properly. Alcohol can damage both the gray matter and white matter within the brain, harming a teenager's executive functioning. Drinking can cause problems with their ability to control impulses, make decisions and retain focus.

How Underage Drinking Influences Alcohol Abuse Later in Life

Underage drinking in the United States can lead to several health consequences that negatively impact the mental development of children, teenagers and young adults. Alcohol can rewire brain functioning and put an individual at a higher risk of developing long-term cognitive impairments, including permanently damaging brain tissue that controls speech, movement and reasoning. The hippocampus, which facilitates learning and memory in the brain, is especially at risk in teens that abuse alcohol.

There's a strong correlation between people who drink alcohol under age 21 and those who develop alcohol dependence later in life. The earlier the onset of alcohol use, the higher their risk for developing alcohol use, abuse and addiction issues. If a person begins drinking before age 14, they are three times more likely to experience alcohol dependence in their young adult or adult years. Though not all these individuals progress into an alcohol use disorder, the younger a person begins drinking, the more likely they are to binge drink more frequently.

There is some research to indicate projected substance abuse from a lower drinking age, as well. Compared to nondrinkers, heavy drinkers are more likely to use tobacco products and use illicit drugs, especially marijuana and methamphetamines. Patterns seem to emerge showing an individual's underage alcohol use increases each year as they move through adolescence and young adulthood. The younger an individual begins drinking, the more likely they are to start using or abusing another substance earlier than nondrinkers.

The debate concerning the minimum legal drinking age in the United States will continue, with advocates for both sides detailing the potential benefits and drawbacks of a lower age. Although some countries that have minimum legal drinking ages of 18 seem to have a higher prevalence of alcohol abuse disorders, there are many countries with lower drinking ages that have lower rates of alcohol abuse disorders than the U.S. However, it's vital that this debate does not lose sight of the proven negative health implications of underage drinking.

Breaking Free From Alcohol Abuse

Adults can safely and responsibly enjoy alcohol without necessarily putting themselves at risk of severe health complications. However, this is not necessarily the case for children, teenagers and young adults who consume alcohol. Despite the varying minimum legal drinking ages around the world, studies have shown alcohol can have a dramatic impact on the mental development of youth and potentially influence them to abuse alcohol later in life. Any individuals who drink alcohol during cognitive development periods may suffer temporary or long-term mental health complications.

If you or a loved one have developed an alcohol or substance abuse disorder from alcohol consumption during the developmental years, you should know help is just a phone call away. Diamond House Detox is a Sacramento facility that provides holistic alcohol detoxification solutions to those who want to break free from their addiction and live a life of sobriety. Even if alcohol has been affecting your life from a young age, it is possible to manage your substance abuse disorder successfully.

A healthy solution to your drinking problem is a phone call away. Those who seek help for their alcohol addiction can gain admittance to our private clinic and receive treatment immediately. Call Diamond House Detox and take the first step on your journey to sobriety today. Call today for same day admittance at (800) 205-6107.

Content medically reviewed by Vicky Magobet, PMHNP-BC, on March 27th, 2019.


Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner at Diamond House Detox
Vicky is a board certified Family Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner, certified by the American Nurses Credentialing Center. She began her nursing career in healthcare by working in the intensive care unit, and then an inpatient psychiatric hospital. After realizing the mental health needs of both the patients and the families she served, she became a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner. Throughout her experience working with clients, she has developed a passion for those with dual diagnoses and specializes in helping individuals recognize the issues driving their substance use. This recognition has been crucial to the individual’s success in treatment. Vicky opened Diamond House Detox so that she can address these issues early on in a therapeutic environment to allow clients to transition to the next level in their recovery.
Vicky Magobet
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