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Substance Use and Your Brains Development

At 18 you are told you are now a legal adult and can start making your own important life decisions. Whether it be working full time or going to college, getting your own credit card, or even moving out into your own apartment. These are all big things to do at such a young age, and most of the time you might not know what the long-term impacts they will have on your life are, so it’s important to consider how much your brain is going to continue to change as you get older.

Even though you are considered an adult at 18, your brain is still continuing to develop until the age of 25. Critical parts of your brain like your decision making, impulse control, logical thinking, organized planning, attention, risk management, and personality development are all things that continue to develop in your brain between the ages of 18-25. So as these parts of your brain are still developing, you might not be able to properly make positive decisions about important aspects of your life and this can lead to engaging in dangerous activities.

As a young adult, you are more susceptible to peer pressure which can result in the use of different substances like alcohol or marijuana, and this can lead to impaired decision-making. This means you may be more likely to take part in risky behaviors that can end up with you being in dangerous and potentially life-threatening situations. Since the long and short-term effects substance use will have on your brain’s development may not be your first thought when you are out with your friends, it’s still important to understand the different consequences it can have on your health.

Short-term consequences include:

  • Lowered ability to make good decisions and recognize immediate danger
  • Higher risk of physical injuries (for example drinking and driving)
  • More likely to engage in risky/unsafe behaviors
  • Higher chance of overdosing

And long-term consequences include:

  • Interruption of proper brain development
  • Negatively affects how you process and learn new information in the future
  • Greater chance of dependence on substances which can lead to addiction
  • Other physical health issues (cancer, heart disease, kidney and liver issues, memory issues, etc.)

Each substance has different effects on the body and understanding how each one impacts you can help you make the right decision to postpone substance use.

Marijuana use is associated with impaired cognitive abilities and lower academic outcomes. Frequent use means there’s a higher chance of a decrease in attention, concentration, and memory, which can all lead to having a harder time in school and lower your school performance. Marijuana use also disrupts your sleep cycles and even though you may fall asleep faster, your quality of sleep will be lower. This can lead to you having trouble regulating your emotions as well since your mind won’t have the energy it needs to regulate itself.

Alcohol use has immediate effects on your thinking, vision, hearing, reaction time, and memory. All of these effects of drinking impact your decision-making skills and you might not be able to determine if you have overindulged to the point of alcohol poisoning, which can result in hospitalization and even death. With continued alcohol use, over time it takes a toll on your body’s organs and overall functions, and the chances of alcoholism are greater.

Driving while under the influence of alcohol or marijuana is very dangerous, and if you don’t understand how these substances affect you, you might think that you are “sober enough” to drive when you really aren’t. With marijuana use, the effects it has on your body that impair your ability to drive include your reaction time being a lot slower, lowered concentration, and your perception is affected. The chances of being involved in an accident increase due to all of these effects. You have to wait at least 6 hours after smoking and up to 12 hours after consumption of an edible before being able to drive safely. With alcohol use, it impairs your ability to judge the distance, speed, movement of other vehicles, and your vision. This increases your likelihood of swerving into other lanes or even off the road. It takes 1 hour for your body to process 1 standard drink,

and even after you sleep for the night, you can still have traces of alcohol in your body and this can continue to affect how you drive. When you get pulled over, the alcohol can still be detected in your body even if you think you are safe to drive. The consequences of driving under the influence (getting a DUI) are very high, and this will permanently stay on your record and can affect your chances of being able to drive in the future. The combination of alcohol and marijuana use significantly increases your chances of being involved in an accident that will be even more life-threatening.


Nicotine use (especially from vapes) is highly addictive since nicotine can reach the brain in 10 seconds. This makes you more inclined to continue smoking since the “good” feeling you get immediately can quickly go away and with continued use over time, your tolerance will rise, and your body will want more intake of nicotine to reach that “good” feeling again. This is when the addiction happens and from there trying to quit will be even more difficult. The risks associated with nicotine use include:

  • Lung disease – High Blood Pressure
  • Headaches – Upset Stomach
  • Insomnia
  • Agitation/Emotional Issues

Withdrawal is a combination of both physical and mental effects you’ll experience after you stop using these different substances. You may experience fatigue, irritability, nausea, sleep issues, and even changes in your mood. With nicotine use, you can feel withdrawal symptoms within 30 minutes. These symptoms alone can impact your life and can make focusing on school more difficult. You can also experience withdrawal symptoms from stopping the use of marijuana and alcohol as well, and these effects make quitting a lot harder. It’s important to understand that these symptoms will only last a limited amount of time and once you get through it, the health benefits are worth it.

While these may not be things you think about when going out with your friends on the weekends, it’s important to understand how the use of substances while your brain is still developing can take a toll on your mental and physical health.

Here are a few ways you can positively promote healthy brain development:

  • Exercise – Meditation
  • Reading – Brain Games
  • Diet
  • Postpone substance use

Check out different apps like Lumosity or Elevate for different games that help engage your brain’s activity and development! Other brains games you can try are Sudoku, crosswords, puzzles, or memory games.

And for more information about your brains development and how substance use interferes with it, check out these articles:

Brain Maturity Extends Well Beyond Teen Years: NPR

At What Age Is The Brain Fully Developed? – Mental Health Daily

Drugs and the Brain | National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)

This article was developed by Sarah Dietrich, an Illinois State University student working as an Intern for the Always Unstoppable Campaign.


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