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To many teenagers and young adults weekend binge drinking seems like harmless fun. Having just a drink or two a day is even thought by some to be healthy.
But The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism tells us that four out of five young adults of college age drink alcohol and 1,425 college students aged 18 to 24 die of unintentional alcohol poisoning every year. And a study conducted at two universities in Mexico even suggests that even moderate consumption of alcohol by young people can damage DNA in ways that accelerate aging and affect them the rest of their lives.
Oxidative Damage of Cell Membranes Caused by Alcohol Consumption
Researchers at the Unidad Profesional Interdisciplinaria de Biotecnología and the Autonomous University of Nayarit in Mexico tested two groups of young people aged 18 to 23. One group did not drink any alcohol at all, and then other consumed an average of 118 grams of alcohol per week, the equivalent of 3.3 liters of beer (1-1/2 cans per day, or drinking a couple of six packs on the weekend). In Mexico, it should be pointed out, consumption of alcohol by 18-year-olds is legal.
All of the participants in the study agreed to blood tests that determined that they were free of chronic disease and not addicted to drugs. The researchers measured a group of oxidative damage biomarkers that are usually measured in people who have been diagnosed with alcohol-related diseases such as cirrhosis of the liver.
Specifically, the researchers looked a chemicals that measure damage to cell membranes that can cause cells to break down prematurely. Oxidative damage to cell membranes can occur for a number of reasons, but the researchers found twice as many damaged cells in blood samples from the alcohol-consuming group.
Oxidative Damage to DNA Caused by Alcohol Consumption
The scientists measured DNA damage in white blood cells through a process called electrophoresis. This test measures damage to telomeres, the protective DNA once though to be junk DNA at the ends of chromosomes. This DNA does not transmit genetic information, but instead makes sure that the two strands that make up the double helix of each gene match up in the right order. When telomeres get too short, the cell simply stops replacing itself. When enough cells stop replacing themselves because their telomeres have been damaged, tissues begin to malfunction and die.
The researchers found that 8% of cells in non-drinkers had this form of DNA damage. Among the young adults who drink, however, 44% of cells had shortened telomeres that would keep them from being able replace themselves as they wore out. This suggests that young people who drink are setting themselves up for early aging as tissues all over their bodies simply wear out and cannot be renewed.