Across the United States, the legal drinking age is 21. Depending on your age, it may be the only legal age you’ve known. A quick look at history will show that not so long ago the legal drinking age was less than 21. Laws have a habit of changing as lobbyists and special interest groups vie for change. While the simple answer to why shouldn’t I drink alcohol before 21 is because it’s the law, are there other reasons to avoid alcohol before this coveted age?
Drinking vs. Buying Alcohol
There is a debate among some over whether the legal drinking age applies to drinking or buying alcohol. The answer is both.
In the United States, a person must be at least 21-years-of-age to purchase alcohol. They must also be at least 21-years-of-age to drink alcohol. While the law provides minor exemptions for the drinking of alcohol by minors (those under 21) due to religious reasons, there are very few cases in which a person under the legal age can drink alcohol without breaking the law.
If you are of age and supply alcohol to a person under the age of 21, you are breaking the law. You could face legal consequences if caught. If you are under the age of 21 and buy or drink alcohol, you are also breaking the law.
The US vs. Other Countries
Did you know that only seven countries have drinking ages as high as the US?
In 1933, most states designated 21 as the drinking age. Then, in the late 1960s and 1970s, almost all states lowered the drinking age to 18. A large increase in alcohol-related car accidents and drunk driving incidents was noted. The increase was so dramatic that it was deemed a public health crisis. According to the National Institute of Health, 60% of all traffic fatalities in the mid-1970s involved alcohol.
In 1984, the national drinking age was raised back to 21. It was a direct response to the drunk driving epidemic of the 1970s and a nation-wide act. President Reagan passed the Minimum Drinking Age Act in July 1984.
Did it work? Did the Minimum Drinking Age Act reduce alcohol-related vehicle fatalities?
Yes. The National Institute of Health reports a 50% drop since the law was passed. Not only did alcohol-related fatalities decrease, but the largest portion of the reduction was among 16 to 20-year-olds.
The legal drinking age isn’t just a social issue. The chosen age has scientific backing.
Alcohol and Cognitive Development
A recent local tragedy involving alcohol gave our experts at Absolute Advocacy a chance to shine more light on the cognitive impact of alcohol on the brain.
Brain science is a difficult subject to tackle, partially due to the stigmas that exist and because of how findings impact preconceptions and longstanding beliefs. Science has proven that the brain continues to develop throughout adolescence and does not fully mature until the early to mid-20s depending on the person.
The prefrontal cortex houses the decision-making portion of the brain, which is negatively impacted when large amounts of alcohol are consumed. For adolescents, the prefrontal cortex is still developing, which naturally causes lapses in judgment. When combined with alcohol, the short-term impact can be deadly. This is one reason behind the legal driving age becoming 21.
During the teen years, the brain is also undergoes restructuring that involves the elimination of what it deems as unnecessary neural connections between the frontal-subcortical brain regions. Neural activity in the prefrontal cortex – or lack thereof – has been linked to mental illnesses and chronic conditions, such as ADD. Research backs the theory that consuming alcohol before the brain fully matures can negatively change cognitive development. Binge drinking presents the greatest risk to cognitive impact with long-term consequences.
Why Shouldn’t I Drink Alcohol Before 21?
Refraining from alcohol until at least the age of 21 benefits your long-term well-being, and here’s why:
- It limits legal consequences. Drinking alcohol before the legal drinking age is against the law. If you get caught, you could face serious legal consequences. Anyone else involved could face legal charges as well. While legalities may seem like a minimal risk, an alcohol charge can wreck your life before you’ve even had a chance to live.
- It impacts your brain’s development. Consuming alcohol before 21, mainly by binging, can forever change the way your brain works. It can increase your risk of mental illness and impact your cognitive functions well into adulthood.
- It increases your risk of a substance use disorder. Drinking before 21 can dramatically increase your risk of alcohol abuse and dependency. While factors like genetics and environment do influence the risk of a substance use disorder, the biggest contributor is behavioral. Judgment and decision-making processes take place in the prefrontal cortex, which is still developing. Binge drinking can negatively impact these processes, increasing your risk of behaviors that lead to substance abuse and addiction.
The legal drinking age isn’t just a law. It’s a public health safeguard.