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why is the drinking age 21

Why Is the Drinking Age 21?

In the government’s eyes, Americans reach adulthood at age 18, which is when they can register to vote, join the military, sign contracts, buy property and start establishing a credit history, among other privileges. Still, people must wait until they are 21 to legally buy and drink alcohol. Have you ever wondered why the drinking age is 21? You might know that hasn’t always been the case. 

The History of the Drinking Age

The national minimum drinking age was 21 when Prohibition ended in the 1930s. However, in 1971, the federal government lowered the voting age to 18, causing many states to legalize drinking for 18-year-olds as well. The rationale behind this decision was that if 18-year-olds could get drafted into the Vietnam War, they were also old enough to drink. 

After states decreased the drinking age, people started noticing a distressing trend of increased car accidents involving younger people. As a result, a grassroots effort emerged to push for reestablishing 21 as the legal drinking age. In 1984, the National Minimum Drinking Age Act passed, which stated federal highway funds would be inaccessible to states that failed to set the minimum legal drinking age back at 21. By 1988, all 50 states had adopted the age minimum, resulting in a 16% decline in annual traffic fatalities.

According to CDC data, younger people started drinking less when the national drinking age increased to 21. Alcohol abuse, suicide and homicide rates also declined, while school attendance improved. Despite this, the CDC still considers underaged drinking a public health problem. 

What Are the Consequences of Drinking When Young?

Though 21 is one of the world’s highest minimum drinking ages, some people have advocated for raising it even further, since emerging science about brain development suggests that people’s brains don’t reach full maturity until around age 25. Specifically, the prefrontal cortex, which governs rational decision-making, is still underdeveloped in 21-year-olds. As a result, younger people are more likely to make impulsive choices based on strong emotions instead of taking time to think things through. 

Under the influence of alcohol, young people might make reckless decisions like driving drunk or having unprotected sex. Alcohol is a leading contributor to deaths from injuries, and can also cause alcohol poisoning, which is a severe health problem. 

Exposing the brain to alcohol before it has fully finished developing leads to long-term damage to the brain’s memory and learning functions. Young adults who binge drink are putting themselves at risk of cognitive impairment that can follow them for the rest of their lives. They are also more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder and experience mental health problems.  

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