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Spring Break Drinking Leads to Brain Damage

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

 

Not all it's cracked up to be: the dangers of Spring Break binge drinking.

Every year, thousands of teens and young adults celebrate Spring Break by drinking large amounts of alcohol—binge drinking—a dangerous rite of passage for some and one linked to possible brain damage later as adults, say experts.

Binge drinking, defined as the consumption of four alcoholic drinks by males or three drinks by females in a day, could be a sign of alcohol dependency or addiction. Because the brain continues to develop through age 25, alcohol use, particularly episodes of binge drinking, severely affects the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for impulse control and decision making, says Dr. Alicia Ann Kowalchuk, medical director, Harris County Hospital District’s InSight, an early alcohol and drug intervention program, and assistant professor, Department of Family and Community Medicine, Baylor College of Medicine.

“The developmental delay of this area of the brain caused by binge drinking can make it hard for young people to later as adults make healthy choices about acceptable alcohol use and impulse control, some being more prone to alcohol abuse and addiction,” Dr. Kowalchuk said.

Unfortunately, some teenagers and young adults use occasions like Spring Break to drink in excess, suffering alcohol poisoning or other health-related issues. Law enforcement agencies cite alcohol as a contributing factor in more than 50 percent of all suicide, homicide and motor vehicle accident cases involving young people.

Binge drinking in RI

Whether a teen is going south for Spring Break or just partying on a Saturday night, the statistics regarding binge drinking in Rhode Island are sobering indeed. According to the Rhode Island Department of Health, Center for Health Data and Analysis, Youth Risk Behavior Survey for 2011, 18% of high school students in Rhode Island reported binge drinking or drinking 5 or more drinks on a given day in the past month.  And according to the United Health Foundation, more than 17% of the Rhode Island population over age 18 engaged in binge drinking in the past 30 days of the survey period in 2011.

According to Margaret Paccione-Dyszlewski, Ph.D. a psychologist and Director of Behavioral Education at Bradley Hospital, binge drinkers have some unique patterns. Binge drinkers may not drink every day, Dr. Paccione-Dyszlewski said. "They may drink weekly or less often, although studies show most drink about twice a week." Further, binge drinkers may not even be addicted to alcohol, she said. 

"Binge drinking statistics tell us that binge drinking peaks between the ages of 18 and 22," Dr. Paccione-Dyszlewski said. "Many of these drinkers are college or high school students. Statistics indicate that binge drinking often begins as young as 13 years of age."

Spring break--a real factor?

"I don't believe there is anything magic about spring break as leading to alcohol-related injuries," said Jason Hack, MD, an emergency medicine physician at the Miriam and Rhode Island hospitals, "with the exception that the numbers and concentration of people drinking may be increased." According to Dr. Hack (who has a specialty in toxicology), a reason to drink, and a group of people around you doing is so, "is all the impetus some people need to participate in potentially dangerous heavy drinking. I think it important to counsel inexperienced drinkers year round, as well as around spring break. It is something that should be discussed openly and reinforced repeatedly, as alcohol related deaths in young people occur at any time of the year."

Doctor Hack did see what appears to be "a small upswing" in 'spring break' alcohol related visits, "but what appears to be another contributor is the weather," he said. "Better weather seems to increase visits; inclement weather seems to decrease alcohol visits."

Helping teens stay binge-free

According to Dr. Paccione-Dyszlewski, the key to managing this high risk behavior among Rhode Island's young people is education. “Even with the lure of the peer group and the party scene, our high school and college students are generally bright and emotionally healthy," she said. "Parents, schools, health caring professionals and young folks themselves can play the largest role in providing the information that will give young people informed choice.”

Doctor Hack emphasized communication. "I think frank, open conversations among families play a large role in helping to educate and orient younger people to the risks and responsibilities that they undertake by participating in drinking alcohol," he said. "This allows everyone to ask and answer questions.  Parents should know if their children are being exposed to drinking and what their children’s friends are doing, and students should understand how their parents feel about drinking what their experiences and expectations are.  If a pattern of dangerous drinking is identified, it is with the support of family that professional counseling might be sought.  It is also important to remember that the legal drinking age in this country is 21."

For more information on teens and binge drinking, visit the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

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