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Binge drinking college students put brain development at risk

Main Line Health December 1, 2016 General Wellness By Damaris Wessel, DO

Question: Since I got to college I've been partying a lot more. Sometimes I slam a few beers just to get in the mood and decompress from studying. I guess you'd call it binge or high-risk drinking, but it doesn't affect how well I'm doing in school. Do I really need to be concerned about it?

Yes, absolutely. But maybe not for the reasons you might think. As you already know, alcohol use affects behavior, can produce negative effects on your health, and more recently has even been tied to cancer. But for college students I think one of the most compelling reasons to be wary of binge, or high-risk drinking, is the fact that the frontal cortex of your brain-where risk assessment, impulse decisions and goal setting and fulfilling-is still developing. When you drink excessively, alcohol disrupts the growth of new brain cells (just when you need them most, in college!) and can cause long-term brain deficits, depending on how much you drink and for how long.

You might also want to be aware that it's not just the alcohol itself that creates a problem. It's the unwanted side effects of putting yourself in questionable situations, or falling and hurting yourself. For some students, these drinking moments may seem funny or embarrassing, but keep this in mind: Binge or high-risk drinking is a great way to set yourself up for a lifetime of alcohol abuse. At the very least be sure to have a sober driver and a friend to look out for you if you're going to be drinking. And as you know, drinking under the age of 21 is also illegal. So while thinking about the health and psychological effects, keep in mind that an incident related to drinking can follow you through a lifetime.

I'm not saying that you shouldn't drink, ever, but as part of your college experience, start thinking about how you want to live your entire life. Think about ways to manage your feelings of stress and anxiety. Start taking new actions to develop healthy behaviors and put good habits in place now like regular exercise, meditation, yoga, prayer, and eating a healthy diet. Expand your circle of friends to include people who don't party so much and see how fun and interesting life can be without getting buzzed or wasted. In fact, many incoming college students today are making the choice not to drink at all, or not to drink a lot.

And by all means, talk with your primary care physician (and your parents) about your health and lifestyle. Understand that the doctor-patient relationship is trusted and confidential.* You can talk to us about anything! And we hope that you will. For many of you, college will feel like the best years of your life. You can make them even better by making your health and well-being a priority. We want to see you graduate with honor-of yourself.

Need a primary care doctor? Use our physician search to find a doctor near you.

* If you are over the age of 18.