EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first installment of a two-part commentary. The second will run in the coming weeks.
Fact: Alcohol is the leading contributor to the leading cause of death of young people. Fact: Every weekend Berkeley is home to out-of-control teenage parties and they always involve alcohol and drugs, often violence and rape.
A third fact is that the City of Berkeley has allowed a dangerous alcohol environment to continue for two years after a young man lost his life at a teen party in North Berkeley. Now this spring a second alcohol-involved stabbing death, this of a UC Berkeley engineering student at a fraternity house, has occurred. And in May yet another young man died the day after he graduated when he fell from a third story roof. According to the police, “alcohol may have been involved,” but the toxicology report has not been released. In March, 2004, a UC Berkeley student died as a result of participating in a contest to see who could consume the most alcohol, and other Berkeley youth have come close to dying of alcohol poisoning. If we accept the premise that adults have ultimate responsibility for the local environment in which our children are finding their way, we should know the facts.
Early onset drinking is more likely to lead to alcohol dependence. One recent study suggests that youth who start drinking by age 15 are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence problems, and 2.5 times more likely to abuse alcohol than those who begin drinking at age 21. Age at first use is also associated with a variety of other health problems, including early and unwanted pregnancy, depression, and suicide. Teen suicide, the third leading cause of teen death, is associated with alcohol and other drug use. If you have children who are drinking at this age, you should be concerned about the consequences of this behavior and concerned about where they are getting their alcohol.
Alameda County reports that Berkeley High School students show significant alcohol use. In their 2005 survey, more than half (58 percent) of Berkeley High and 90 percent of Berkeley Alternative High respondents said they have used alcohol in the last month. The majority of both schools’ respondents began drinking between the ages of 11 and 15. The Berkeley cohort was the only one in the county that had more female respondents using alcohol than males (64 percent females vs. 37 percent countywide). Who is looking out for the health and safety of these young women in Berkeley?
Adolescent brains—including frontal brain systems that underpin self-control and mature judgment regarding long-term goals and consequences—continue to mature into early adulthood. Thus, the drives, impulses, emotions, and changes in motivation that accompany puberty arise before self control and judgment are fully developed. Furthermore, the complex neurobehavioral changes that occur in adolescence interact with the social context of adolescence in ways that may further increase risk.
Young people today, at least in the West, grow up in a culture that puts few controls and restraints on them. Instead, youth culture itself has become the dominant environment from adolescence until adulthood. As our offspring attain physical freedom from our household, they are naturally subject to powerful forces beyond our control, especially status among peers.
Evidence is increasing that alcohol-dependent young people experience deficits in cognitive functioning as well as heightened sensitivity of the female brain to alcohol effects. One study revealed decreased activity in the areas of the brain associated with memory. Young women (18-25 years old) tested three days after their last drink showed significantly poorer memory task performance than their non-drinking peers.
In another study, cognitive functioning was examined in adolescent subjects recruited from in-patient alcohol and drug abuse treatment centers. In order to allow the dependent adolescents time to detoxify, testing took place in the third week of treatment. Compared with matched controls, alcohol-dependent teens showed impaired memory, altered perception of spatial relationships, and poorer verbal skills. These results, taken with other studies, suggest that problems with cognitive functioning are detectable among adolescents with histories of extensive alcohol use. These deficits may put alcohol-dependent adolescents at risk for falling farther behind in school, putting them at an even greater disadvantage relative to nonusers.
There is growing evidence that early onset of drinking is a powerful predictor of lifetime alcohol abuse and dependence. One study revealed that adults who started drinking at age 14 were three times more likely to report ever driving after drinking too much in their lives than those who began drinking after age 21. This study also demonstrated that crashes were four times more likely for those who began drinking at age 14 when compared to those who began drinking after age 21.
Binge drinking is predominantly an upper-middle class problem—because this group has the money to spend. Nearly half (44.2 percent) of UC Berkeley students report having binged in the last two weeks.
Finally, the volume of alcohol sales is shown to be directly related to risk of being hospitalized for assault. At peak times of sales, the risk was 41 percent higher. About one third of injuries were due to a sharp or blunt weapon. The researchers suggest that the cognitive impairment caused by alcohol puts young men in urban settings especially at risk. The risk of injury due to alcohol became a death sentence for at least three young men in Berkeley.
Karen Klitz, Laura Menard and Ralph Adams are members of Berkeley Alcohol Policy Advocacy Coalition (BAPAC), coalition of individuals from the community, research groups, and public agencies who have been meeting since 2004 to address our concerns regarding alcohol-related problems, to learn what others are doing to address these issues, and to work together to find and implement a solution. A comprehensive, prevention-based proposal was presented by BAPAC to the City Council on April 16, 2006. For more information or a complete version (with citations) of this commentary, contact BAPAC at BAPAC2006@earthlink.net.