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Why the Drinking Age is 21 Instead of 18

Happy 18th Birthday!

Congratulations you are now an official adult! You can finally vote in elections, marry, serve on a jury, and sign your own safety waivers. No longer a kid in the eyes of the law, you now have full access to all the same privileges and rights of every other adult in the country. That is fantasti—

Wait, what did you say? You mean you could be sent off to war but can’t buy or drink a beer?

Why twenty-one?

For many teens this is a common question about alcohol laws. They may remember family members saying that the drinking age was lower back in their day or hear about other countries whose minimum age is not as high. Eighteen, nineteen, and twenty year-olds in particular might wonder why they cannot purchase or drink alcohol despite legally being adults. Why isn’t the ability to lawfully drink bestowed at eighteen, when so many other rights and responsibilities are?

While some “new” adults may feel ripped off because of the drinking age, buying and drinking alcohol are not the only activities restricted to them, as there is a long precedent of permitting certain behaviors based on age. Eighteen is not, nor should be, an automatic pass for all actions. The dangers and benefits of every activity must be examined at every age to determine what is most appropriate and/or safe.

Twenty-one, for example, is also the minimum age in many states for buying a handgun, gambling in a casino, and adopting children. Most car rental companies require customers be at least twenty-five due to auto accident statistics. A person cannot run for Congress until he or she is twenty-five, thirty for the Senate, and thirty-five for president. Each of these instances specifically tailors its minimum age according to safety, experience, or other needs rather than passively accept legal adulthood as the only qualification.

One of the most prominent reasons for the drinking age is the detrimental effects alcohol can have on the brain and healthy development. Though eighteen year-olds are traditionally considered adults, research shows that the human brain continues to grow until a person’s mid-twenties. Just as everyone should agree that alcohol would be terrible for an eight year-old’s health, so too is it unwise for eighteen year-olds. To lower the drinking age would be medically irresponsible, as drinking during adolescence or young adulthood puts proper brain development at risk.

The hippocampus, the part of the brain linked to memory and learning, is especially susceptible to brain damage. Studies have found that alcohol use can drastically shrink the size of hippocampi, reducing both short and long-term memory, with extreme cases losing the ability to form new memories entirely.

Similarly the prefrontal cortex—the source of judgement, impulse-control, and reasoning—is one of the last areas to fully mature. Because of this, teens are already more prone to bad decisions and risky behavior, and drinking vastly intensifies these effects. Alcohol use may also affect a person’s impulsivity and ability to reason in the long-term. Yet at eighteen, people are suddenly allowed to make important legal and life-long decisions. Sounds like something you want your prefrontal cortex perfectly healthy for, doesn’t it?

Turning eighteen and becoming and adult are a big deal. Enjoy your newfound freedom, responsibility, and place in the world. Lease an apartment, go skydiving, or, heck, change your name if you want to. You might not be allowed to drink yet, but trust us, that’s a good thing.

Your brain will thank you later.

*       *       *

By Tyler Wroblewski

Look for future articles on reasons for the drinking age including teens and drunk driving, the trickle-down effect, and more.

Pictures From:

Fig.1: By Areatius (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Fig 3: By Brews ohare (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Works Consulted

“A Call to Action: Changing the Culture of Drinking at U.S. Colleges.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

“Alcohol Damages the Teenage Brain.” WebMD. WebMD, Inc. “Drinking Age” ProConorg Headlines.

Hiller-­Sturmhöfel, Susanne, PH.D., and H. Scott  Swartzwelder, PH.D. “Alcohol’s Effects on the Adolescent Brain.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Lathrop, Janet. “Adolescent Binge Drinking Reduces Brain Myelin, Impairs Cognitive and Behavioral Control.” Office of News & Media Relations. UMassAmherst.

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