Alcohol use can impact the brain differently depending on how old someone is. This is because the brain develops throughout life, beginning in the womb. A lot of this development occurs during the first few years of life and adolescence.
Alcohol Impact on Babies
It is important to be aware of the unique risks that exposure to alcohol can have during these crucial moments of development. Babies in utero are exposed to alcohol if their mother drinks during pregnancy.
During pregnancy, alcohol travels through the mother’s blood to the baby through the umbilical cord . Drinking while pregnant can result in a miscarriage or stillbirth.
However, if someone carries their baby to term, it doesn’t mean that the child won’t be impacted by alcohol exposure.
In fact, some infants may develop fetal alcohol syndrome. Fetal alcohol syndrome is directly related to infant brain health . Symptoms of this disorder include:
- Poor coordination
- Hyperactive behavior
- Memory impairment
- Learning disabilities
- Speech and language delays
- Intellectual disabilities
- Vision or hearing problems .
While this is not an exhaustive list of every impairment that a child may endure, it does demonstrate that alcohol during pregnancy can cause lifelong damage to brain health .
This is not said to shame pregnant people who may be suffering from alcoholism but is an encouragement to get help for yourself or your loved one if they are pregnant and abusing alcohol.
Brain development during pregnancy and the first few years of life basically sets the stage for someone’s brain health for the rest of their life. However, this is not the only phase of life where major growth happens in the brain.
Effects on Adolescents
Adolescence is also a time of significant growth. Adolescents‘ brains are more vulnerable to the negative consequences of alcohol use than adults are .
Research shows that alcohol use during these years can negatively impact someone’s ability to learn new information and can cause memory impairment .
This is especially dangerous because, during the teen years and early twenties, someone’s brain is still developing the ability to process long-term consequences and make rational decisions .
Given where adolescents are at cognitively, they are more likely to make emotion-based decisions. Memory impairment or learning difficulties would only place an adolescent at more risk.
This is significant because these are the years that people typically begin drinking. Research also shows that the earlier someone begins drinking, the more likely they are to develop an addiction to alcohol .
These statistics how important it is to properly screen for and treat alcohol misuse and addiction. Screening everyone regularly for alcohol abuse could help prevent serious, long-term consequences of alcohol use.
If doctors, counselors, or other professionals were able to determine who is struggling, then treatment could begin earlier. Screening is a powerful intervention because many people struggling with addiction may be silent about it for several reasons.
These reasons could include being in denial about the severity of their substance issue, fear of judgment, or desire to continue drinking. Treatment for alcohol addiction is available for adolescents and adults.
Treatment often includes support from a mental health professional, including individual and family therapy. Treatment also tends to include group therapy and coping-skills development. Everyone deserves to recover and live their life free of addiction.
 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, October 8). Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs). https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/fasd/alcohol-use.html
 McLean Hospital. (2020, August 20). Just how does drinking affect the teenage brain? https://www.mcleanhospital.org/essential/what-you-need-know-about-alcohol-and-developing-teenage-brain
About the Author:
Samantha Bothwell, LMFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, writer, explorer, and lipstick aficionado. She became a therapist after doing her own healing work so she could become whole after spending many years living with her mind and body disconnected. She has focused her clinical work to support the healing process of survivors of sexual violence and eating disorders. She is passionate about guiding people in their return to their truest Self so they can live their most authentic, peaceful life.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from multiple physical, emotional, environmental, and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published on January 18, 2021
Reviewed by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on January 18, 2021
Published on AddictionHope.com