Scots in mid-30s brain damaged by excessive drink

Specialist unit to open to treat heavy drinkers. Picture: Sean BellSpecialist unit to open to treat heavy drinkers. Picture: Sean Bell
Specialist unit to open to treat heavy drinkers. Picture: Sean Bell
A SPECIALIST unit is to be opened to cater for the growing numbers of Scots whose heavy drinking is causing significant brain damage, as it emerged that doctors have seen patients as young as their mid-thirties with the condition.

The Scotsman has learned that the new centre in Edinburgh will take up to 80 patients each year suffering from alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD) aged under 65.

Staff are to focus on treating men and women showing symptoms of the two associated conditions, Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s syndrome.

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Linked to chronic alcoholism and malnutrition, symptoms include confusion, an inability to concentrate, poor balance and co-ordination and in many cases subjects have depression and anxiety.

Once associated with elderly drinkers, health professionals say the typical age is now late fifties. Health boards in Glasgow and Edinburgh have even seen patients in their mid and late thirties. Experts said that some patients are drinking so heavily that almost their entire calorie intake is from alcohol.

Figures show one in four will never recover, although the remaining three quarters will make a full or partial recovery.

NHS Lothian and Edinburgh City Council will launch the two-year trial this spring with the unit in the south-west of the capital handling up to ten patients at a time.

NHS Lothian estimates there are several hundred patients in its board area. It said the average stay in hospital is two months, at significant cost to the taxpayer, but that most could be out in just 11 days if they had a dedicated facility to move them to.

Jamie Megaw, programme manager at NHS Lothian, said: “These are patients drinking at such a level it has damaged their brains. For some we see, most of their calorie intake is from alcohol.”

Mr Megaw said that although there are voluntary groups which bridge the gap between hospital and home, there are few formal services, which is why Milestone House is being opened for a two-year trial.

He said: “The challenge is once the patient is out of hospital it can be difficult to keep track of [them]. Their cognitive impairment can improve over time and we know if they have the right support and vitamins many can recover.”

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Alcohol Focus Scotland described ARBD as a hidden condition which often goes undiagnosed, and highlighted the fact that there are few statistics with which to show trends.

One broad indicator is that hospital admissions for alcohol in Scotland have tripled in the past 30 years. NHS Lothian also said that about 600 residents in the region are affected, from a population of 850,000.

NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde has a similar unit and has seen about 1,000 patients who have ARBD-like symptoms since 2006.

Dr Evelyn Gillan, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, said: “ARBD is a condition that often goes unrecognised, but figures show a rise in cases in Scotland over the past two decades. Any new service offering dedicated support to people with the condition is to be welcomed.”

Analysis by June Andrews: Drink driving is unacceptable but binge drinking is tolerated

The amount of alcohol consumed by women and younger people has increased radically in recent years. This is a reflection of changing social habits, and relatively cheap alcohol.

Although drink driving is now socially unacceptable in most circles, binge drinking is tolerated on our streets. In contrast with the past when young people stopped drinking when they ran out of money on an evening out, they are currently able to afford to keep consuming alcohol until they are completely inebriated.

Women of previous generations would not have frequented pubs or consumed wine regularly at home.

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The significance of this is that alcohol brain damage is greatest if you are smaller, thinner, younger or female. We cannot predict the extent of the damage that is being caused through excess alcohol consumption, which is within the new social norms.

The creation of new services for people with this avoidable brain damage is evidence of a rise in need.

Although it is hard to estimate future need, it is certain to increase unless people take better care of themselves.

• Professor June Andrews of Stirling University is an expert on alcohol-related dementia.