A Developmental Perspective on Alcohol and Youths 16 to 20 Years of Age

Late adolescence (ie, 16-20 years of age) is a period characterized by escalation of drinking and alcohol use problems for many and by the onset of an alcohol use disorder for some. This heightened period of vulnerability is a joint consequence of the continuity of risk from earlier developmental stages and the unique neurologic, cognitive, and social changes that occur in late adolescence. We review the normative neurologic, cognitive, and social changes that typically occur in late adolescence, and we discuss the evidence for the impact of these transitions on individual drinking trajectories. We also describe evidence linking alcohol abuse in late adolescence with neurologic damage and social impairments, and we discuss whether these are the bases for the association of adolescent drinking with increased risks of mental health, substance abuse, and social problems in adulthood. Finally, we discuss both the challenges and successes in the treatment and prevention of adolescent drinking problems.