Facts & Statistics

How Alcohol Affects the Brain

Illustration of a brain inside a child's head.

Alcohol can cut short the healthy brain development of a child.

Many of the risks related to underage drinking are tied directly to the brain and its function. The brain of a young child is in development until around age 25. Alcohol can cut short its healthy growth and “re-wire” it in ways that cause physical, emotional and social harm to a child.1

Two crucial parts of the brain that control memory, learning, decision-making and personality are especially vulnerable to alcohol as a child grows.

Memory and learning are controlled by a part of the brain called the Hippocampus (look it up online with your child to learn more). This part is especially sensitive during your child’s development. Alcohol use can poison the nerve cells and cause permanent damage. This can lead to memory loss and poor school performance.

The Cerebral Cortex/Frontal Lobe (also a good one to look up with your child) is important for planning, judgment, decision-making, impulse control and language. This area of the brain changes the most during the teenage years, so if kids are drinking in elementary and middle school, there’s a real potential for harm later on. The damage alcohol use can have on the Prefrontal Lobe can cause emotional instability, aggression, risky behavior, and other negative effects in children.

Excessive alcohol can also impair:

  • Physical balance and speech. Drinking can lead to falling and slurred speech. (Cerebellum)
  • Organs and bodily function. The Hypothalamus keeps these working together. Alcohol can cause increased need to urinate and lowered heart rate.
  • Breathing and heart rate. The Medulla controls vital functions like breathing and heart rate. Alcohol causes the medulla to lower the body’s temperature, and that can lead to hypothermia. The Medulla can work to fight off alcohol in your system, but if it is overwhelmed, alcohol poisoning can result.2

1Siqueira, L. VC Smith, Comm Subst Abuse, and Committee on Substance Abuse, “Binge Drinking,” Pediatrics 136, no. 3 (2015): E718-E726.

2The Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, “Ask, Listen, Learn,” accessed September 2017.

Boy blows candle on birthday cake with his 2 friends.

1 in 3 Kids have tried alcohol by age 8

By age 12, the number of kids who have tried alcohol increases to 2 in 3.

Tip: The earlier you start talking to your child about alcohol, the better. Early engagement can help your child avoid future problems with alcohol.

Dear Parent

Be patient and take small steps. The topic is complex and you don’t want to overwhelm your child.