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Booze putting teen brains at risk

A Generation of Victorian teenagers are drinking themselves into oblivion, with more than a quarter of 15-year-olds bingeing until they black out – the point at which brain damage is likely to occur.

Research has also found that more than a third of 11-year-old boys have consumed alcohol.

The figures, contained in a study by the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, have alarmed brain development experts who say a generation of young people are destroying their chances of reaching their full potential.

A sharp rise in the number of women in their 20s being diagnosed with alcohol-acquired brain injury shows the effects of under-age drinking are already being seen – a problem that health experts say will have far-reaching consequences for the wider economy.

The study, to be published in the journal Health Promotion International, found that in the previous 12 months, 25.5 per cent of boys and 27.1 per cent of girls aged 15 had drunk until they blacked out, the level at which brain cells responsible for higher level functioning die.

”Any level of alcohol consumed by people under about the age of 24 is doing a different level of damage and a more serious level of damage than someone over about that age,” said John Eyre, managing director of Alcohol Related Brain Injury Australian Services (ARBIAS).

”You’re damaging brain cells that haven’t even gained certain skills, knowledge, or development yet,” Mr Eyre said.

Professor Jon Currie, director of addiction medicine at St Vincent’s Hospital drug and alcohol unit, said: ”The thing which really worries us is the direct effect of alcohol on the developing brain which relates to your ability to solve problems, your ability to think clearly, your ability to make judgments, not just at the time but this can interfere with someone who could have been an Einstein now not being an Einstein.

”People’s thinking ability may be blunted by high exposure to alcohol in these years, so you just don’t develop your full potential basically,” Professor Currie said.

The frontal lobes of the brain, the areas most affected by alcohol, are responsible for executive functioning skills – such as a person’s ability to plan, have insight into themselves, define goals, assess risk and outcomes and appreciate consequences of actions.

A person can have mild to moderate brain damage in these areas without it impairing their ability to function normally on a superficial level. ”They don’t realise it because they still go and have a job and have a family and things like that, but things start to fall apart for them and they can’t work out why,” Mr Eyre said.

”You end up with people losing their jobs and it’s put down to discipline, underperformance, inappropriate behaviour, but it’s not analysed … in fact they’ve probably got cognitive impairment due to a number of years of drinking.”

He said an increase in the number of young people with alcohol-acquired brain injuries would have long-term consequences for industry and the wider economy as more employees found it harder to maintain sophisticated jobs.

”They will end up in the health system, which is costing us a fortune in terms of both human cost and money,” Mr Eyre said.

Brain damage occurs not only when a person drinks to the point of blacking out, but also when alcohol is consumed during a sustained period.

Three standard drinks a day for women and six standard drinks a day for men every day for eight years would be likely to cause brain damage.

One standard drink is 100 millilitres of wine, one pot of full-strength beer or 30 millilitres of spirits.

Health experts say that apart from the damage teenagers are doing to their brains by taking up under-age drinking, another concern is that they are increasing their likelihood of developing alcohol dependency later in life.

”Exposure at a young age increases the risk at a later age of heavy drinking, so we’re not particularly supportive of this concept of starting kids off at 14 or 15 with a few drinks at home,” Professor Currie said.

But some researchers argue that it is the environment in which you have your first drink that has more influence on your later drinking habits.

The study compared Victorian teenagers’ drinking levels with those of teenagers in Washington state, in the US, where the legal drinking age is 21.

Researchers found 11.2 per cent of 15-year-old boys and 12.2 per cent of 15-year-old girls in the Washington state survey had blacked out while drinking in the previous year.

Just 10 per cent of 11-year-old boys in Washington state had consumed alcohol in the previous year, compared with triple that number in Victoria.

Professor John Toumbourou, honorary researcher at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and one of the study’s authors, said: ”I believe that we should be looking at an age 21 drinking age in Victoria … it has very sound scientific evidence to support it as a way of reducing alcohol misuse and violence and road accidents”.

But Professor Rob Moodie, chairman of Global Health at the Nossal Institute of Health, said that before considering raising the legal drinking age, it was important to respect the rules that were already in place. ”We’ve basically had the last 30 or 40 years lying about the real drinking age … by virtue of increase in availability, increase in promotion, decrease in price …” he said

Professor Moodie chaired the National Preventative Health Taskforce, which recently spelt out a plan for creating a safer drinking culture.

He urged measures such as limiting alcohol promotion to young people, ensuring pricing encouraged consumption of beverages with low-alcohol content, and focusing more on licensing.

Professor Sandra Jones, director of the Centre for Health Initiatives at the University of Wollongong, has studied alcohol advertising’s effect on young people. ”We’ve done research with children as young as nine and 10, and a lot of them have positive attitudes towards alcohol because they’ve seen the ads, they think this is cool.”

source: The Age

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