The Danger of Just One Drink
What happens when alcohol and your brain collide? The surprising science behind why so many teens are ending up drunk, confused, embarrassed, in danger...or much worse.
Seventeen-year-old Taylor Meyer found herself standing in the woods one October night after her school’s homecoming football game. Two paths lay in front of her. One led back the way she’d come—to a parking area, a familiar territory in the town of Norfolk, Massachusetts. The other went deeper into the trees.
Normally, Taylor would have known exactly which direction would bring her to the safety of the parking lot. But when she got up from the campfire to go home, she wasn’t thinking clearly. Hours of drinking left her mind fuzzy and disoriented. Despite being just a few feet away from both her friends and the exit, she was utterly lost.
Elsewhere, as morning came, it dawned on her family and friends that she was missing.
A frantic search began. But on day three, the unthinkable happened: Taylor’s body was found, drowned in two feet of water in a swampy area of the woods. She’d died drunkenly trying to find her way back.
Every year, about 4,700 young people die from drinking alcohol. You may hear of these tragic cases and their proximate causes— horrific car accidents, inconceivable drownings, and frightening falls. Experts say that behind most of these fatalities are kids who have been binge drinking —that is, downing five or more drinks in less than two hours (for guys) or four or more (for girls).
In fact, 90 percent of the alcohol teens drink is consumed during binge drinking, and when you look more closely at the statistic, it’s not hard to understand why. When alcohol is served at a party, there’s no bartender doling it out ounce by ounce. “Studies suggest that if young people pour their own drinks, they underestimate the amount by about 50 percent,” says Aaron White, program director of Underage and College Drinking Research at the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. This means that kids have no idea how much they’re actually drinking.
Then there’s the way alcohol affects the teen brain. Scientists now know that even having “just one drink” can trigger a chain reaction of more drinks and other bad decisions—a swift series of events that can leave you drunk, dazed, confused, embarrassed . . . or much worse.
It’s easy to assume that the 21-year-old drinking age is just an arbitrary number—something adults came up with out of thin air. But in fact, there is scientific evidence showing that it’s safer to drink alcohol when you’re out of your teens.
Not since you were a toddler learning to walk and talk has there been a more important time for brain development than your mid-teens through early 20s. This is when your frontal lobe—the area regulating impulse control, decision-making, planning, and processing social cues—is fully maturing. “Alcohol has a huge impact on the ability of parts of the brain to develop,” says Rob Turrisi, a professor of biobehavioral health, at Penn State University. “It changes the way the frontal cortex works.”
Obviously, adults who drink can make bad decisions too, but when a teen brain that is still in the wiring process meets alcohol, it gets especially hazardous.
White points out that alcohol numbs specific areas of the brain, such as the amygdala, which is supposed to alert us when we’re in danger. If our alarm system is snoozing, we may feel emboldened to make reckless choices—like jumping off a hotel balcony into a pool or chugging another beer (and another). This explains why one drink is likely to turn into a binge. “Your amygdala isn’t shouting, ‘Hey this is really idiotic,’ like it should be,” says White.
The scientific proof is undeniable: Your brain on alcohol becomes a dumber, more unpredictable version of itself—and the consequences can be catastrophic.
All fun—that’s what drinking might look like to you. You see movies where the shy, unpopular girl unlocks her inner party queen with a few drinks, or where everyone from Zac Efron to Seth Rogen goes on an all-night bender and lives to laugh about it. But too often, drinking leads to the opposite of fun. Statistics show that alcohol plays a role in fights, sexual assault, and unwanted and unprotected sex. Plus binge drinking can lead to the highly vulnerable “blackout” state, when the hippocampus—an area of the brain responsible for making memories—goes on the fritz. A whopping 90 percent of teen drinkers have experienced a blackout by age 19, and roughly half have blacked out multiple times.
Though “blacking out” sounds as if it’s referring to someone who is passed out, it really describes an eerie condition where a person walks, talks—maybe even drives—while drunk, but wakes up the next morning with no memories of what happened the night before. And it’s a safe bet that what that person is not remembering was not his or her best moment. “In all my years of talking about this, I’ve never met anyone who’s woken up and found out they’d done something smart the night before,” says White.
So how do blackouts happen? Drinking games are a common culprit, as is chugging beer or downing shots. Liquors, such as vodka, rum, and whiskey, are more likely to cause blackouts, since they have a higher alcohol concentration than beer or wine. Also, because of different body chemistry that affects the way the liver metabolizes alcohol, a girl will get drunk and black out more quickly than a guy—even if both are the same weight.
THE ROAD AHEAD
Everyone knows people who’ve survived—someone who partied while underage and seemed to make it to adulthood unscathed. Possibly parents, or older siblings, or cousins. Turrisi warns not to get a false sense of security from those triumphant tales. “The key thing is that for every one person who gets through the gauntlet without problems, there are hundreds of others who don’t. People who may have gotten in the car with the wrong person at the wrong time, or fallen off a building, or been sexually assaulted, or didn’t do well in school. People who suffered physical, legal, or academic consequences,” he says.
Experts contend that people who start drinking early have less chance of success in life—not only because of alcohol’s effect on brain development, but also because it makes you more likely to become dependent on drugs or alcohol. Indeed, research shows that those who have a first drink by age 14 are seven times more likely to develop an addiction problem compared with those who start at age 21.
Many teens seem to be getting the message. Ava, 15, a sophomore at a large public high school in Nashville, TN, says drinking has no appeal to her right now. “I don’t see the point of not being in your right mind,” she says. “I have more fun doing other things with my friends.”
Kathi Meyer Sullivan, Taylor’s mother, hopes she can help more kids find the confidence to turn down alcohol. At schools around Massachusetts, she urges teens to think about how quickly drinking can escalate, and asks them to consider the consequences. “What if your best friend wasn’t around today because you chose to drink?” she asks. “Do you think the girls doing shots in the woods that night my daughter died thought that five days later they’d be at her funeral?”
Taylor’s mom would like you to revisit that question every time you’re offered just one drink.
Image Credits: Infographic/Tracy Walker; Flow Chart/Cultura/Axel Bernstorff/Getty Images (girl texting); Michael Ventura/Alamy (drink being poured); ML Harris/The Image Bank/Getty Images (girl waving); Shutterstock (soda); E+/Getty Images (thumbs down); Martin Holtkamp/fStop/Getty Images (beer); Shutterstock (hand)