Emerging Adulthood, the period of life from approximately age 18 to the late 20s, is not only a critical time for psychological and social development, but also for physical brain development. Contrary to a popular assumption that the brain is mature by the age of 18, recent studies have shown that profound brain growth and change still occur during Emerging Adulthood. [Studies] The heavy use of drugs and alcohol during this time frame can inhibit a person’s brain development and have long term consequences.
Brain Development during Late Teens and 20s
To better understand the consequences of binge drinking or drug use on the brain’s development; let’s examine how the brain is growing during this period. During these ages, the prefrontal cortex, one of the last areas of the brain to develop, rapidly grows and expands by creating new synapses between neurons. This allows for thinking and responding on new levels while at the same time undergoing a pruning process to discard rarely used neurons increasing overall brain efficiency. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for planning and thinking ahead, prioritizing, problem solving, decision-making, regulating emotions and balancing risk and reward. Although these tasks can be done at earlier ages, after the full development of the prefrontal cortex, these functions take less effort and can be performed much better. Ask any parent of a teenager how well their teen can handle the functions described below:
Positive Impact of These Brain Changes
More Complex Thinking - The Emerging Adult experiences an increased ability to understand abstract ideas, values, perspectives and thoughts, such as mathematics, sciences, and philosophy.
Appreciation for Diverse Views - Where adolescents tend to use a right/wrong framework, Emerging Adults can increasingly see and understand many points of view at the same time. They more fully value the diversity of people and perspectives and learn to appreciate that there can be many right answers to a problem.
Less Self-Centered - By being able to see multiple perspectives, Emerging Adults begin to form and experience relationships that are less self-centered.
Regulating Emotions - An Emerging Adult can better regulate emotions and make decisions based on more than just immediate sensations.
Risk-taking and Decision-making - With the increased ability to consider both the present and the future at the same time, Emerging Adults are better able to weigh immediate rewards against future consequences. Emerging Adults have an easier time balancing risk and reward and making decisions about their future. They can also more effectively weigh the impact their choices have on others.
As anyone who has worked in the Alcohol and Drug Addiction field knows, these cognitive functions are often limited or impaired when someone is in the middle of their addiction. Emerging Adults can be at greater risk if their brain development is inhibited during this critical time.
Vulnerability During Emerging Adulthood
The rapid growth and changes in the brain during Emerging Adulthood are exciting. However, because this is a time of rapid growth, it also means the brain is more vulnerable if the growth is stunted during this time. [Studies] have shown that Emerging Adult brains are particularly vulnerable to trauma and abuse, as well as heavy use of alcohol and drugs. Brain scans have shown that heavy drinking, defined as 20 or more drinks a month, by young people can lead to decreased cognitive function, memory and attention. Sadly, the key functions of the prefrontal cortex are also the ones most needed by anyone suffering from an addiction.
It is important for Emerging Adults to understand the potential lifelong effects heavy drug and alcohol use can have on their physical development during this time and to learn how an addiction can impair their decision-making even further. New Hope Recovery Center’s Emerging Adult Program provides education and important life skills training to help Emerging Adults flourish and grow during this critical period of their life.
Written By: New Hope Recovery Center
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