Claire McCarthy, MD, Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing
If we only paid attention to ads, it might seem as though alcohol — a beer or glass of wine, a shot of fiery liquor or sophisticated cocktail — merely served as a way to bring people together and make them happy. Drink responsibly, the ads wink, without ever explaining the toll that frequent or excessive alcohol use exacts, particularly at certain stages in life. Because alcohol doesn’t just get us drunk, impair our judgment, and hurt our liver: it can have many other bad effects on our bodies — including effects on the brain.
In a recent editorial in The BMJ, a trio of scientists pointed out that there are three periods in life when the brain goes through major changes and is particularly vulnerable to the effects of alcohol. Two of those periods are at the beginning and end of life. When pregnant women drink alcohol, it can damage the developing brain of the fetus, leading to physical problems, learning disabilities, and behavioral problems. When people over the age of 65 drink alcohol, it can worsen declines in brain function that happen during aging.
The third period is adolescence. During those years of transition between childhood and adulthood, the brain grows and changes in many important ways that are crucial for that transition to be successful. When teens and young adults drink alcohol, it can interfere with that process of brain development in ways that affect the rest of their lives.
Alcohol use in teens and young adults
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