The effects of teen and college-aged drinking are well-known—especially with respect to brain development. We now know, for example, that alcohol can be especially damaging to a young, developing brain and that the younger the drinker, the greater the harm. Research has shown that heavy drinking in one’s teen years is associated with a smaller hippocampus (and in turn memory and learning problems), as well as a smaller prefrontal cortex (and impaired planning, judgment and decision making).
A higher likelihood of alcohol abuse and addiction in adulthood is another health effect of alcohol abuse at a young age. For instance, a study in the British Medical Journal found that binge drinking during young adulthood (ages 18-24) was a significant risk factor for alcohol problems later in life.
Now, a new study presented this year by the European Society of Cardiology has unearthed yet another reason to avoid drinking in one’s teen and young adult years. The study found that drinking alcohol during adolescence and young adulthood accelerated the stiffening of and in turn cardiovascular disease.
The Link Between Alcohol, Arteries, and the Heart
Arteries are one of three kinds of blood vessels (the others being veins and capillaries). They help the heart send oxygen-and-nutrient-rich blood to other parts of the body such as the organs and body tissues.
When anyone habitually overindulges in alcohol, their blood vessels become less elastic over time. (While this process happens naturally as part of the aging process, an alcohol problem will increase the rate at which it occurs.)
Less elasticity of blood vessels adversely affects the arteries’ ability to modulate blood pressure, as well as blood pressure itself. While the full mechanics of this process are still not entirely clear, scientists can trace a direct line from this phenomenon to heart disease, stroke, and other cardiovascular issues.
What the New Study Found
What the new study found was a similar trend among young people who drink a lot: Their arteries harden prematurely as a direct result of alcohol abuse.
This conclusion came after assessing the drinking habits of 1655 people between the ages of 17 and 24, whose alcohol consumption was ranked as “never,” “medium” (four drinks or less on a typical day of drinking) and “high” (more than five drinks on a typical day of drinking).
To gauge the extent at which their arteries were becoming rigid, the researchers used a technique known as “carotid-femoral pulse wave velocity.” With the help of this intervention, they found that when other potential contributing factors were controlled for, level of alcohol consumption emerged as the clearest contributor to heart disease.
What This Finding Means
Like other forms of experimentation, binge and heavy drinking are often considered ordinary and even necessary rites of passage for people ages 17-24. Drinking has become an accepted ritual on college campuses across this country—so much so that roughly one-third of college students have an alcohol use disorder, according to 2021 data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA).
This new finding that drinking causes premature aging of blood vessels is just one more health reason not to drink when you’re young. It’s also a reminder that alcohol can cause considerable and potentially lasting damage to health, especially when drinking occurs during one’s youth. This is to say nothing of other, well known affects binge drinking has upon your health, such as damage to your teeth and oral health. In many ways it will undo all the time and money spent at the orthodontist
One last takeaway of this finding: If you or a young adult whom you love has an alcohol problem, it is never too early to seek treatment. A medically supervised detox from alcohol, followed by therapies that address the root causes of one’s alcohol consumption, has helped many people find freedom from alcohol.
Finding recovery coaching after treatment is an option many recovering addicts have opted for to continue to receive support.