Girls are starting to drink alcohol at younger and younger ages. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration, about 31 percent of girls between the ages of 10 and 14 try or start to drink alcohol. This is more than four-fold the number from the 1980s. The American Association for the Advancement of Science has set up a “Science Inside Alcohol” website on Facebook to educate and help teens and parents deal with alcohol issues (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Science-Inside-Alcohol/33451484521).
Aimee Stern, author of the forthcoming book “Delay that First Drink: A Parent’s Guide” lists the reasons why girls are more susceptible to alcohol than boys:
- Girls are more severely affected by alcohol, because their bodies contain less water due to a higher fat to lean muscle ratio. This means that the concentration of alcohol will be higher in a girl than in a boy when both drink the same amount of alcohol.
- Because girls are generally smaller than boys in body size, they may also become more quickly intoxicated by the same amount of drinks.
- A group of enzymes, called alcohol dehydrogenases, break down or metabolize alcohol. Girls have fewer of these enzymes and therefore stay intoxicated longer.
- Many girls prefer sweet alcoholic drinks. Mixed sweet or carbonated drinks are more dangerous, because the alcohol is absorbed faster into the blood stream.
Both young boys and young girls are affected by the toxic effects of alcohol, but girls are more susceptible. In a study, published in Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, Susan Talbert and her associates studied a group of 12- to 14-year-olds for about three years before and after they started to drink. They found that girls who started binge drinking, but not control non-drinkers, had damaged nerve tissue in their brain and were poor at visuospatial tasks like mathematics. Boys who drank had trouble with sustained attention (Sequeglia, L.M. et al.).
There are many risk factors for alcohol abuse by teens or preteens; foremost are a genetic predisposition and family problems, such as physical and sexual abuse, substance abuse at home, or living with a mentally ill parent. Recently, Science Daily discussed a report, published in the American Journal of Public Health, which also points the finger at alcohol marketers. The study found a close relationship between teenage viewers and frequency of beer, spirits and “alcopop” advertising on cable television. It is not known whether this kind of advertising to a largely teen audience is intentional or not.
Significant brain development still takes place during adolescence. Neuroimaging has confirmed that alcohol selectively suppresses cognitive activity in the frontal and posterior regions of the brain (NeuroImage, 2006). It is not known whether the nerve damage seen in the brains of drinking adolescents will permanently affect their developing brains. Because studies show that starting to drink before age 15 makes adolescents four times more likely to have alcohol-related problems later in life, Aimee Stern urges that kids delay their first drink. The message to girls is that they are biologically more vulnerable than boys to the effects of alcohol.
Squeglia, L.M. et al. Initiating moderate to heavy alcohol use predicts changes in neuropsychological functioning for adolescent girls and boys. Psychol. Addict. Behav. (2009) 23: 715