Column: Science supports chemical health preventionThe Chemical Health Initiative of Goodhue County is working to change social norms around underage drinking.
By: Joanne Pohl, The Republican Eagle
The Chemical Health Initiative of Goodhue County is working to change social norms around underage drinking. Recognizing that alcohol use by high school students has historically been both expected and accepted as experimentation and a part of growing up, the CHI is striving to educate adults about why such attitudes place our young people at risk for both short-term and long-term negative outcomes.
We are living in an age of unprecedented scientific discoveries. These advances in scientific knowledge and understanding are having a tremendous impact upon how we live our daily lives. Changes in technology are literally changing the way we experience the world.
As we learn more about health and wellness, we have the opportunity to significantly improve and enhance the quality of our lives. It is essential that we take responsibility for our own well-being by adapting our habits and lifestyles to comport with what science is telling us about how to effectuate positive health outcomes.
This responsibility is especially acute in relation to parents and grandparents raising (and helping to raise) children. The science is becoming very clear that childhood experiences have direct impact upon behavior and emotion.
Especially during adolescent years, changes in body and brain are happening very fast. While the natural gawkiness and immaturity of adolescence is generally seen as a phase that teenagers will all pass through, researchers are now recognizing that this period of rapid growth and development holds tremendous potential for helping children to become smarter and stronger adults. It is this time of change and adjustment within the adolescent body and brain that can produce strength and stability; or it can produce risky behavior and decision-making leading to very negative outcomes.
Recent research by scientists at Cornell University has established that the adolescent brain processes risks and rewards in a different way than do adult brains. Specifically, adolescents’ brains are much more active in processing perceived rewards than are adult brains. In other words, teenagers are highly motivated to pursue rewards.
The Cornell University researchers conclude that this adolescent brain functioning around obtaining rewards suggests that adolescence is a particularly optimal time for the learning needed to successfully transition from childhood to adulthood.
Additional research by neuroscientists at the University of Pittsburgh supports this conclusion that adolescents are behaviorally motivated by reward. More specifically, their research reveals that the difference between adolescent and adult brains in terms of motivated learning is ties to the dorsal striatum, a region of the brain linked to habit formation and action selection.
This suggests that behavior with an anticipated reward is more strongly pursued by adolescents than by adults. The neuroscientist writing about the study identifies this finding as a key to understanding why adolescence is such a risk period for addiction. “This anticipation of reward may make the brain of an adolescent more vulnerable to addiction than that of a young adult.”
National statistics reflect this conclusion. When young people begin drinking under the age of 15, they are six times more likely to become alcohol dependent later in their lives. The CHI data on age of onset for Goodhue County children identifies 12.87 as the average age that our young people start to drink alcohol.
Beyond the difficulties posed by such negative long-term outcomes for adolescents who start drinking at early ages is the reality of devastating short-term outcomes. The leading cause of death of young people (in all industrialized countries) is not medical diseases, but problems with behavior and emotion. This means suicide, homicide, car accidents, accidental overdoses, drownings, and falls.
As a researcher at the University of California Berkeley School of Public Health observes, when we better understand the adolescent brain, we can better identify the reasons for risky behaviors and develop ways to reduce the rate of tragic outcomes for our young people.
We know that the teenage brain is working hard to connect its planning and inhibition functioning with its emotional and motivational functioning. That process is the critical piece of the growing up process. Children who successfully achieve that hook-up in the brain during their adolescent years have a much greater chance of leading healthy and happy lives than do children who experience delays and problems with that process.
Alcohol use in adolescence compromises the brain’s ability to work optimally toward connecting planning and inhibition functioning with emotional and behavioral functioning.
When adults understand and appreciate the vulnerabilities and opportunities inherent in the development of the adolescent brain, they realize the importance of creating environments for our young people that promote healthy choices.
Being tolerant or apathetic about underage drinking does not help or assist our adolescents’ transition to adulthood. We owe it to our children to ensure that our family and community environments allow them to become all that they can be. We know the science. Our children’s promise and potential lie in our hands.
If you would like to be part of the community of persons in Goodhue County working to develop healthy kids, healthy families and healthy communities, go to www.chi-goodhue.org.