Drinking away your potential
It's a Saturday night and that means pre-drinks at (insert address here). After that, it's a trip to (insert hotspot here) for some more cocktails, followed by more shots of (insert alcohol here).
By the end of the night, (insert name here) is drunk and has to be restrained from vomiting on/fighting with complete strangers. Not fazed, everyone laughs this off and agrees to do the exact same thing next weekend.
It's a situation most young Australians are familiar with, but while they see it as harmless fun, experts are growing increasingly concerned about the effects of alcohol, especially on the developing brain.
Between 1993 and 2002, more than 500 Victorians aged between 15 and 24 died from alcohol-attributable injury or disease.
That was the last time the National Drug Research Institute collected data like this, but the organisation's director, Professor Steve Allsop, insists little has changed.
"Alcohol is a tiny molecule that is easily transported around the body, affecting every major and minor organ, and its effects are toxic," he says.
"It increases you chances of hepatitis, liver cancer, even breast cancer. It hurts your kidneys and presents major cardiovascular risks. It damages every organ."
But for young people, there's another newly discovered risk: brain damage.
"A decade ago we thought the brain stopped developing at 21, but now we've realised it actually keeps developing until you're 25," Professor Allsop says.
"As alcohol greatly affects the developing brain, this is bad news for young people. By indulging in occasional heavy drinking, you could be limiting your brain's potential or, as a colleague of mine described it, 'Going from a B-minus to a C-plus' without realising it."
According to the Federal Government's guidelines for alcohol consumption, heavy drinking is anything more than two standard drinks a day with the occasional four standard drinks on special occasions. That’s why experts say it’s important to always check the label first or, if you're at a club, ask the person serving you.
To put this in perspective, a typical stubby of full-strength beer or glass of white wine is 1.4 standard drinks. A bottle or can of pre-mixed spirits can be up to 1.5 standard drinks.
Drink more than that and the guidelines suggest you risk "serious short- and long-term damage to your temporal lobe" - the part of the brain that controls memory, emotion, hearing, language and learning.
It's not me, it's you
But young people aren't just risking their health when they drink heavily. In the 2009 National Binge Drinking Survey (new window), almost 90 per cent of 15-to-25-year-olds who had consumed alcohol in the previous three months agreed that getting drunk increased the chances of doing something regrettable.
By regrettable, they meant unprotected sex, serious injury, fights and arguments with friends and family, but the majority insisted none of that would ever happen to them.
"We all understand the risks, but we seem to underestimate them," Professor Allsop says.
"I call it 'self-serving optimism'. No one sees themselves as a problem drinker, but then you ask them if they've ever drunk and driven or gotten into a row with their family or hurt themselves falling over. These are all signs of problem drinking."
"Young people shouldn't think they're immune to the risks associated with alcohol. You are poisoning your body every time you drink more than the guidelines recommend, aand the impacts of that will remain with you for the rest of your life."
Stephanie, 19, doesn't drink often, but says she always gets pressured into drinking too much by her friends.
"If I'm at a party and not driving, I don't mind having a few drinks. It's just that when I want to stop, my friends don't and they keep bringing me drinks. I'm not spineless, but I don't want them to think I'm lame so I drink them. Then I feel sick and guilty the next day."
Brian Vandenberg, Manager of VicHealth's alcohol program, says peer pressure plays a big part in how much we drink.
"In Australia, drinking is ingrained in our culture. They see alcohol as an ordinary and harmless product, but it's not harmless and it shouldn't be regarded as such. Binge drinking shouldn't be an accepted part of life for young or old."
Unfortunately, it's easy to binge drink without even realising it. According to Mr Vandenberg, drinking more than six alcoholic drinks over an entire day is enough to be classified as binge drinking. It's even worse if you drink that many in one night.
"Six drinks are enough to rapidly reduce your response time and do damage internally, and it's all most people need to become intoxicated enough to do themselves some real harm by, say, crossing the road and being hit by a car," he says.
While alcohol in any quantity is harmful, it's ridiculous to pretend you'll never touch the stuff. The best way to be responsible when you drink is to know how many standard drinks your chosen alcoholic beverage is and never have more than four on any occasion.
A typical can or bottle of full-strength beer is 1.4, so is a glass of white wine. A bottle or can of pre-mixed spirits can be up to 1.5 standard drinks, so it's important to check the label, or, if you're out at a bar or club, ask the person serving you.
Of course, these guidelines only apply to those 18 and older. According to Professor Allsop, the risks are multiplied if you drink while you're underage.
"You're even further reducing your brain's potential, you're destroying your still developing body and you're setting yourself up for liver disease at as young as 20," he says.
So don't be stupid and don't treat alcohol lightly. To find out more about being responsible around alcohol, check out VicHealth's website for more information about alcohol misuse (new window), and the Federal Department of Health website to play their "Don't Turn a Night Out Into a Nightmare" game (new window).
For more articles about Health & relationships, check out our Articles archive.
Articles Written by Elisa
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