Effects of Alcohol Abuse

  • Adolescent drinkers scored worse than non-users on vocabulary, general information, memory, memory retrieval and at least three other tests
  • Verbal and nonverbal information recall was most heavily affected, with a 10% performance decrease in alcohol users
  • Significant neuropsychological deficits exist in early to middle adolescents (ages 15 and 16) with histories of extensive alcohol use
  • Adolescent drinkers perform worse in school, are more likely to fall behind and have an increased risk of social problems, depression, suicidal thoughts and violence
  • Alcohol affects the sleep cycle, resulting in impaired learning and memory as well as disrupted release of hormones necessary for growth and maturation
  • Alcohol use increases risk of stroke among young drinkers

Adverse effects of alcohol on the brain: research findings

Youth who drink can have a significant reduction in learning and memory, and teen alcohol users are most susceptible to damaging two key brain areas that are undergoing dramatic changes in adolescence:

  • The hippocampus handles many types of memory and learning and suffers from the worst alcohol-related brain damage in teens. Those who had been drinking more and for longer had significantly smaller hippocampi (10%).
  • The prefrontal area (behind the forehead) undergoes the most change during adolescence. Researchers found that adolescent drinking could cause severe changes in this area and others, which play an important role in forming adult personality and behavior. It is often called the CEO of the brain.

Lasting implications

Compared to students who drink little or not at all, frequent drinkers may never be able to catch up in adulthood, since alcohol inhibits systems crucial for storing new information such as long-term memories. It also makes it difficult to immediately remember what was just learned.

Additionally, those who binge once a week or increase their drinking from age 18 to 24 may have problems attaining the goals of young adulthood—marriage, educational attainment, employment, and financial independence. And rather than “outgrowing” alcohol use, young abusers are significantly more likely to have drinking problems as adults.
-Source: American Medical Association, October 20, 2004

The additional following statistics show how underage drinking affects the health and safety of the child. References appear at the end of the section.

  • Those who begin drinking at age 14 or younger are significantly more likely to experience unintentional injuries, physical fights, and motor vehicle crashes after drinking. 1,2,3
  • Among high school students who reported riding with a driver who had been drinking, 80% were frequent drinkers and only 14% never drank.4
  • Among 12- to 17-year-old current drinkers, 31% had extreme levels of psychological distress, and 39% exhibited serious behavioral problems.5
  • In 2000, youths ages 12 to 17 who reported past-year alcohol use (19.6%) were more than twice as likely as youths who did not (8.6%) to be at risk for suicide during this time period.6
  • Girls ages 12 to 16 who are current drinkers are four times more likely than their non-drinking peers to suffer from depression.7
  • In 2004, 1.6 million youth ages 12 to 17 needed treatment for an alcohol problem. Of this group, only 126,000 (8.0%) of them received any treatment at a specialty facility, leaving an estimated 1.4 million youths who needed but did not receive treatment.8
  • Of all children under age 15 killed in vehicle crashes in 2003, 21% were killed in alcohol-related crashes.9


  1. Hingson R, Heeren T, Jamanka A, et al. 2000. Age of drinking onset and unintentional injury involvement after drinking. Journal of the American Medical Association 284(12): 1527-1533.
  2. Hingson R, Heeren T, Levenson S et al. 2002. Age of drinking onset and involvement in alcohol related motor vehicle crashes. Accident Analysis and Prevention 34(1): (85-92).
  3. Hingson R, Heeren T, Zakocs R. 2001. Age of drinking onset and involvement in physical fights after drinking. Pediatrics 108(4):872–877.
  4. Hingson R, Kenkel D. 2004. Social, health and economic consequences of underage drinking. In: Reducing Underage Drinking: A Collective Responsibility, Background papers [CD-ROM]. Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 351-382.
  5. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. 1999. The Relationship Between Mental Health and Substance Abuse Among Adolescents. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health ServicesAdministration.
  6. Office of Applied Studies. 2002. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. NHSDA Report: Substance Use and the Risk of Suicide Among Youths. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
  7. Hanna EZ, Hsaio-Ye Y, Dufour M. 2000. The relationship of drinking alone and other substance use alone and in combination to health and behavior problems among youth aged 12-16: Findings from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III). Paper presented at the 23rd Annual Scientific Meeting of the Research Society on Alcoholism, June 24-29, 2000, Denver, CO.
  8. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. 2005. Results from the 2004 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: National Findings. Rockville, MD: Office of Applied Studies.
  9. National Center for Statistics and Analysis. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.