OJJDP Highlights Neurological, Economic Consequences of Underage Drinking

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New findings from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) address the neurological impact of underage drinking, suggesting that teens that use alcohol may be more likely to experience developmental problems, such as memory lapses, and engage in more dangerous activities, including risky sexual behaviors, than their peers.

Effects and Consequences of Underage Drinking, a bulletin released by the OJJDP earlier this month, is a literature review compiling various findings regarding the social, developmental and economic influence of teenage alcohol consumption.

In reviewing numerous studies on the neurological effects of underage drinking, the OJJDP notes studies indicating that the hippocampus - the portion of the brain most closely associated with memory and learning - was 10 percent smaller in teens that used alcohol compared to the general youth population, while other studies suggest that alcohol consumption has a toxic effect on the myelination process in teenage brains, which may result in long-term cognitive deficiencies.

Comprehensive research also ties together underage drinking with risky sexual activities, as the OJJDP notes that youth that drink alcohol are much likelier to have sex at earlier ages, have sex with multiple partners, engage in unprotected sexual behavior and contract sexual transmitted infections than teenagers that do not consume alcohol.

Additional findings indicate the heavy toll underage drinking takes on society, with the OJJDP citing a 2010 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report that states that in 2009, 19 percent of youth ages 16-20 that were involved in deadly automobile accidents had blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels that were over the legal limit for adult motorists. Other data indicates that teens that regularly use alcohol are at elevated risks to commit homicide, engage in dating violence or attempt suicide. 

Citing a 2007 Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation study, the OJJDP calculates the total price of underage drinking on society, based on medical, work loss and lost quality of life costs, to be approximately $68 billion - approximately $1 for every drink an underage individual consumes in the United States annually.