The long-term effects of alcohol use, as UK has worst rates among children

Drunk female with a glass of whiskey
Experts have raised concerns over how young children are being exposed to alcohol in the UK. (Getty Images)

The UK has the highest rates of child alcohol consumption in the world, a new report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) has revealed.

The global health report revealed that, of the 44 countries examined, a third of 11-year-olds and more than half of 13-year-olds in England have drunk alcohol.

It found that UK girls aged 13 and 15 were drinking, smoking and vaping more than boys of the same age. Children from higher-income families are also more likely to have drunk alcohol in their lifetime compared to those from lower-income backgrounds.

The study analysed data on 280,000 children aged 11, 13 and 15 from 44 countries and regions about their use of alcohol, cigarettes and vape. It included over 4,000 children in England and around 4,000 children in Scotland and Wales.

The findings have sparked concern among experts about children being exposed to alcohol at too young an age.

The WHO’s regional director for Europe, Dr Hans Kluge, warned that alcohol and other harmful products have been "normalised" for children.

"The widespread use of harmful substances among children in many countries across the European Region – and beyond – is a serious public health threat.

"Considering that the brain continues to develop well into a person’s mid-20s, adolescents need to be protected from the effects of toxic and dangerous products. Unfortunately, children today are constantly exposed to targeted online marketing of harmful products, while popular culture, like video games, normalises them."

Study coordinator Dr Jo Inchley, from Glasgow University, added: "Trying substances is part of growing up and experimenting but alcohol has long-term effects on health."

In the UK, the legal drinking age is 18. However, the WHO’s report shows that many children and teenagers are being introduced to alcohol long before that, and there are concerns over how this exposure will impact their health.

According to the NHS, alcohol use in a person’s teenage years is "related to a wide range of health and social problems". The health service adds that, if children do drink underage, they should be at least 15, be limited to no more than one drink a week, and be supervised.

The overall health risks of drinking include:

  • Affecting the normal development of vital organs and functions, including the brain, liver, bones and hormones

  • Alcohol-related injuries, involvement in violence, and suicidal thoughts and attempts

  • Risky behaviour such as violence, having more sexual partners, pregnancy, using drugs, employment problems and drink driving

There are also more specific impacts of alcohol on young bodies, such as on their mental health and oral health.

Dr Smita Mehra, principal dentist at The Neem Tree Dental Practice, tells Yahoo UK that the "worrying UK drinking culture that exists among young people in their early to mid-teens" risks damaging their oral health in the short and long term.

"First of all, alcohol acts as a diuretic, which means that instead of hydrating a child’s body, it instead promotes water loss through excessive urination,” she explains. “Not only will alcohol consumption lead to dehydration, but this also means that the child will be producing less saliva or spit, which acts as a buffer against acid in the mouth, and aids in swallowing and general protection of the mouth and gums."

She warns that the early exposure to acid and erosion through alcohol on young teeth - as well as vomiting from excessive drinking - can cause higher risks of future dental problems, like heightened teeth sensitivity, plaque formation, and the development of cavities.

"It’s important to remember that for children in their teens, some of their teeth are still growing, and alcohol could potentially interfere with the structure of their jaw formation as they approach adulthood," she says.

"Regular dental check-ups, where your dentist can examine your child’s teeth and gums for any initial warning signs of excessive erosion, plaque or cavities, are crucial in eliminating the risk of early exposure to alcohol having long-term consequences on their future oral health."

Pensive sad boy teenager with blue eyes in a blue shirt and jeans sitting at the window and closes his face with his hands.
Exposure to alcohol from a young age can lead to mental health complications. (Getty Images)

Being exposed to alcohol at a young age can also have a significant impact on a young person's mental health, says Dr Angel Enrique, senior manager and digital health scientist for mental health service provider Silvercloud by Amwell.

He tells Yahoo UK that, as alcohol is a depressant, it "can affect normal brain development, which can lead to cognitive and behavioural challenges". "Drinking can cause mood swings with symptoms such as irritability, fatigue and anxiety. It can also impair decision-making abilities at any age, but may be more pronounced the younger the drinker.

"Before the age of 20, alcohol can have a lasting effect on concentration and learning capabilities. Early exposure to alcohol raises the risk of developing an alcohol use disorder in adulthood, and it increases the likelihood of experiencing mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression."

Dr Enrique adds that being introduced to alcohol while young can normalise its consumption to young people, which can "amplify the risk of developing problematic drinking habits in adulthood".

"The human brain continues to develop until our twenties, and experiences during our formative years can significantly influence our behaviour throughout life," he explains. "Young people who use alcohol to help manage their emotions may hinder their ability to handle stress and regulate their feelings as adults, in addition to affecting their social relationships."

He also warns of the long-term risks of alcohol consumption, including a range of physical and mental health complications.

"Extended exposure to alcohol is linked to cognitive decline, memory impairment, and behavioural issues. There is also an elevated risk of mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression. Some may turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism for depressive episodes, which can inadvertently perpetuate cycles of binge drinking, and exacerbate the problem."

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