Research–BloomingMystery

Raising the Legal Drinking Age

 The brain is the most complex organ in the body, research and tests always unveil something new regarding functionality, especially in terms of which parts of the brain control what. Development is an important factor of how the brain operates because if damage occurs here, functionality can be stunted or simply removed after a period of time depending on the level of damage. In more specific terms, the prefrontal cortex is involved in many functions that are important to a human being, especially one that is still growing and changing. It has been proven that when it comes to the brain developing, the prefrontal cortex is a crucial part of an adult’s life and should be given the time to develop properly without interference. So, this must raise the question: why is the prefrontal cortex so important when it comes to a person, but additionally, what role does this part of the brain have exactly?

The prefrontal cortex, as described by its name, lies at the front of the brain and overall, makes up about ten percent of the brain. In turn, this makes the prefrontal cortex involved in many functions throughout the brain, and these functions play a huge part in an adult’s life. However, the prefrontal cortex is best known for its executive functions as pointed out by Neuroscientifically Challenged in their article, “Know your brain: Prefrontal cortex.” The author goes on to explain what an executive function is: “In general, executive functions focus on controlling short-sighted, reflexive behaviors,” and these can include functions such as the ability for a person to make decisions, to plan, and to have self-control just to name a few. All in all, the prefrontal cortex offers logic and stops a person from behaving solely on impulse, it allows a person to act based on long-term goals instead of being rash which benefits greatly to an adult more so than to a teenager. Teenagers are not fully developed when compared to an adult as they are driven by desire rather than a goal they’d like to reach, whereas adults with a developed prefrontal cortex understand the logic behind acting with an end goal in mind. 

With the prefrontal cortex consisting of many different functions, it can be divided into three sections depending on functionality. The website Good Therapy introduces the three parts as follows: the medial prefrontal cortex, the orbital prefrontal cortex, and the lateral prefrontal cortex. The medial section contributes to attention and motivation, and if this part receives some damage or interference from an outside substance, such as alcohol, a person can lose all focus and have trouble trying to concentrate on things. The orbital section helps in controlling impulses while ignoring distractions, and it also helps to keep strong emotions in check as to follow social norms/ques. An interference on this part may cause a person to act out of character, getting too riled up, becoming extremely moody, or just showing signs that are out the norm which again can be caused by the consumption of alcohol. Finally, the lateral section allows a person to not only create a plan, but to then execute it. This section is also important for following a specific sequence and when this part of the prefrontal cortex is interfered with, a person stops being able to properly follow step-by-step instructions and the process of making a plan and following through with such is thrown out the window. These sections are especially affected with the use of alcohol like previously mentioned, and although nothing is fully damaged or taken away, if something as dangerous as alcohol is used consistently enough, it can cause irreversible damage to the brain, especially to the prefrontal cortex. 

When it comes down to it, the prefrontal cortex is of course the last to fully develop as the brain develops in a back to front motion. This can explain why teenagers have mood swings and have trouble controlling such strong emotions, their prefrontal cortex isn’t fully done developing so their impulses aren’t being held back just yet. On the contrary, young adults start to behave more maturely: acting on logic rather than desires, thinking of future plans and then dictating their actions based around said plan, and understanding how to maintain self-control in terms of emotions and actions. Additionally, a website dedicated to medical and life sciences has an article titled, “ Human brain development does not stop at adolescence: Research” which provides further evidence that the brain does not come to a stop development wise until a person reaches their mid-twenties, around the age of twenty-five to be more specific. The author of this article also mentioned why the brain may not be fully developed until the mid-twenties: “this may be due to a plethora of life experiences in young adulthood such as pursuing post-secondary education, starting a career, independence and developing new social and family relationships.” When looking at this, it is clear that brain development also relies on the person themselves and what life experiences they go through, which may also explain why others mature faster compared to their peers. Every brain is different and every brain develops at a different speed, yet there is evidence and research that goes to show that relatively, brains don’t stop development until about age twenty-five, so one can conclude that max maturity, brain wise, can be chalked up to the mid-twenties.  

Alcohol is a dangerous substance that continuously flies under society’s radar. When compared to other substances like drugs or vaping, alcohol rarely gets discussed in terms of the irreversible damage that it can have on the human brain. The brain and its functionality are a key factor to a person living up to their full potential and becoming a useful member to the society around them, however when alcohol comes into the mix at an age where the brain is not yet fully developed, this hinders a person’s ability to be at their absolute best. Some may disagree with this and express that raising the legal limit by only a few years would do nothing in terms of helping brain functionality. The argument presented here is that since the brain finishes developing at twenty-five, why is the legal drinking age set at twenty-one?

We can start this discussion off by looking deeper into alcohol and its effects on the brain. The brain in general is a delicate part of the body and is quite vulnerable to injury, but when it comes to alcohol consumption, the level of damage that the brain may take varies person to person depending on a multitude of factors that could be at play such as how much alcohol is consumed, and how often said alcohol is consumed. No matter what the answers are to the previously mentioned factors, those under twenty-five who consume alcohol will cause quite a bit of damage to their prefrontal cortex because this section of the brain is not yet developed. The website Alcorehab further supports this notion by explaining that the effects of alcohol “cause this region to shrink and reduce in mass while lowering the number of neurons within the prefrontal cortex.” All in all, research has shown that even drinking occasionally before the brain has time to fully develop can cause irreversible damage to an area that is involved in a lot of the overall functionality of the brain.

Even those who rarely consume alcohol can cause a considerable amount of damage to their brain. On the website Alcorehab, they explain the most common short-term effect that alcohol has on the brain: blackouts. Now, there are two types of blackouts that drinkers can experience, partial and complete. Simply put, partial blackouts come from small intakes of alcohol and include forgetting basic information like someone’s name or where they may be at that time. On the other hand, complete blackouts cause an impairment of someone’s memory that makes said person forget everything that had taken place the previous night, and they usually need help from others to tell them what had occurred before.While these blackouts are short-term effects of alcohol use and are relatively innocent, the long-term effects on a person’s brain are irreversible, and unlike blackouts, these effects are not temporary. 

The long-term effects of consuming alcohol can be terrifying as excessive consumption can severely damage the brain. On the website Addiction Resource, the author discusses the topic of brain shrinkage, and like previously mentioned, any sort of loss in terms of mass can lead to irreversible damage and changes to the brain overall, especially to the prefrontal cortex as it is still developing. Changes can include but are not limited to: “learning difficulties, memory disruption, unstable mood, unstable sleep patterns, unusual fluctuations in body temperature, and a declining ability to control muscle movement.” These issues relate more so to the prefrontal cortex because this section of the brain helps to regulate emotions, memory, and usually is related to the logical part of thinking, and based on the previous changes mentioned, the learning difficulties connect to the logical part, the unstable mood connects to the emotional part, and the disruption of memory of course connects to the memory portion of the prefrontal cortex. Now of course these issues occur over time with the use of alcohol, however they remain a serious threat to twenty-one year olds as they drink when their brain is still coming into itself, and this may cause stunted development or parts just not developing to their absolute best as compared to if the law was changed to make them wait until everything had developed properly. 

The brain is fragile and the core of a person, controlling things ranging from emotions to movements to everything in between, and even if someone experiences those short-term effects rather than the long-term, they can still have devastating results later on. Blacking out time and time again, even if for short periods of time, can still cause memory damage later on down the line. All in all, regardless of whether someone is affected by the short-term or long-term effects that come with alcohol use, it still messes with the overall functionality and does not allow their brain to achieve maximum efficiency. 

In the world, there are people who come into power and have the ability to pass or change up certain laws pertaining to our society. In the United States, we have laws and regulations designed to keep us safe and are there to benefit society as a whole, but are these laws/regulations always right? Of course not, those in charge can be wrong, the society around us can be wrong, and one of these laws that is wrong right now is the drinking age being set at twenty-one. Now, those that are for the drinking age being twenty-one may bring up the fact that being twenty-one makes you responsible, and having the set age where it is now prevents any harm that may be caused if the age was lowered like some other countries out there. While these statements have good reasoning behind them, thinking about them realistically and with science in mind, these statements made by the opposing side are incorrect. The prefrontal cortex is the most important part of the brain as this section stores memory, experience, emotions, and other functions that are still being figured out to this day. With this part of the brain being so important to who we are as people, wouldn’t it be only natural to want to protect the development of such a core element when it comes to human beings?

The opposing side sees twenty-one as being a better fit because people at this age are, in society’s eyes, more mature. This is due to the fact that twenty-one-year-olds hold a job, they can drive and own their own car, they go to college, can serve in the military, and are even able to marry. While this may seem like a solid point, all of these things are able to be accomplished also by eighteen-year-olds, who are still at an age where they are immature for the most part and still trying to get a grasp on the real world. Why is it so special for a twenty-one-year-old to have all these things when an eighteen-year-old can obtain them just as easily? Being able to do these things alone does not make anyone mature in the slightest, rather what really makes someone mature is the ability to not act on desire alone or get things simply because they can, but to be able to think logically and create a plan to achieve the goals that they want in life. Basing maturity on the general age of twenty-one is irrational because once this age is reached that does not mean that the person automatically gains maturity as well, that comes with experience and with having those sections of the brain that regulate logic and planning fully developed. On the website Inverse, there is an article titled “3 Life-Changing Things That Happen To The Human Brain At 25,” and the author of said article mentions that “by quarter-life, most of us have figured out how to control our impulses, plan and prioritize well, and organize our lives in a way that gets us to our end goals.” This further supports the notion that twenty-one does not make someone mature, it is the experiences that happen with growing up and by the age of twenty-five, most people have come to a point where they have matured completely, brain-wise and personality-wise. Just like the author pointed out, twenty-five-year-olds, for the most part, have their life together and start acting on logic rather than impulse.  

Additionally, the opposing side sees the drinking age at twenty-one as beneficial to the brain compared to places where the drinking age is lowered, usually at eighteen. Once again, while this does prevent harm for those under the legal age, what about the last four years that contribute to brain development? Is it acceptable to simply ignore four important years of development to the core of a human? Let’s compare the brain to a computer for a moment. Now, no one would expect a computer to fully function with some of its pieces missing, there would be an error somewhere along the way. The brain is the same way, it cannot function to the best of its ability if development is cut short by the interference of alcohol four years too early. To recap, drinking alcohol can impair one’s judgment, long and short term memory, and it makes impulse control virtually nonexistent. All these effects put a strain on your prefrontal cortex and can affect this part of your brain long term if alcohol is abused. As to why raising the drinking age to twenty-five is so important, it’s that it gives a person, while growing, the ability to have experiences and to have logical thinking implanted before alcohol is introduced.

When the brain is hindered while still growing and implementing those important pieces for an adult to have, this can cause irreversible changes to the way a person thinks and how they act. Once your brain is damaged and development stops, there is no way for the brain to repair any of this or for it to go back and finish developing, even if alcohol use stops before things can get worse. Having every part of the body mature is vital for human functionality, and since the brain develops in the back to front motion, the prefrontal cortex, one of the most important parts of the brain, is the last one to reach full development. This has been proven as fact by extensive research from doctors and scientists alike, and the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry at the University of Alberta is one of many places to come forth with findings that show that brain development does not stop until the mid-twenties. Even if society has dubbed twenty-one as the right age to be able to drink, this does not mean it shouldn’t or couldn’t be changed. Our society is ever changing and will never be the same when compared back to later years, even as week by week passes, new things happen and change seemingly by the minute. People also constantly change their viewpoints and reasoning just as much as the society built around us does. When it comes to the prefrontal cortex and brain development, however, these are set in stone facts that have been backed up by extensive research, not some opinion that can change later on down the line. Overall, the brain should be given as much time as needed in order to develop fully and ensure that an individual has everything set in order to go about their lives with maximum efficiency. 

References:

2011, Sep 23. “Human Brain Development Does Not Stop at Adolescence: Research.” News, 19 June 2019, https://www.news-medical.net/news/20110923/human-brain-development-does-not-stop-at-adolescence-research.aspx

Cummins, Eleanor. “3 Things That Happen to the Human Brain at 25.” Inverse, Inverse, 6 July 2017, http://www.inverse.com/article/33753-brain-changes-health-25-quarter-life-crisis-neurology.

Neurosci. “Know Your Brain: Prefrontal Cortex.” Neuroscientifically Challenged, Neuroscientifically Challenged, 18 May 2014, http://www.neuroscientificallychallenged.com/blog/2014/5/16/know-your-brain-prefrontal-cortex.

“Prefrontal Cortex.” GoodTherapy.org Therapy Blog, 4 Sept. 2019, http://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/psychpedia/prefrontal-cortex.

Manarang-Obsioma, Marixie Ann. “Long- and Short-Term Effects of Alcohol on Brain: Damage Symptoms.” AlcoRehab.org, AlcoRehab, 7 Aug. 2019, alcorehab.org/the-effects-of-alcohol/brain/.

“Long and Short-Term Effects of Alcoholism on the Brain.” Addiction Resource, 9 Mar. 2018, addictionresource.com/alcohol/effects/brain/.

Keck, Rachel. “How Does Alcohol Affect the Brain? (It’s Not Pretty).” Dr. Axe, 21 Feb. 2019, draxe.com/health/how-does-alcohol-affect-the-brain/.

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