A brain-centred approach will enable millions of us to avoid the alcohol icebergs we know are out there.
The latest smudge on the radar screen in was made in February by 10,000 extra cases of early-onset dementia lurking in French medical data. Alcohol factored in 57% of them, tripling the risk of all dementias. This mass suffering must be mourned, as is the fact that the risks are not widely known, as I discovered investigating my book Alcohol Companion.
Other investigations are poised to confirm the dementia statistic, which is almost certainly an underestimate. “No surprise,” say many in the psychiatric and mental health professions on reading this week’s dementia statistic. For them alcohol damage is is a commonplace of working knowledge.
There are more statistical icebergs are out there too, simply waiting to be given wider recognition. There is already an undisputed correlation between drinking more than a little alcohol and depression and anxiety. So too post-traumatic stress, problems with decision-making abilities, cognition, memory and impulse control.
Some of us may know this on paper or have found out from experience, but how many of us really act on what we know? It is already known that drinking no more than 14 UK units (140ml) of alcohol a week will minimise our chances of problems. If we take our mental health seriously, as surely we should, we need to follow this guidance.
Our brains are not just the fall-guy in our relationship with alcohol either, they also initiate it. We drink alcohol because we like how our brains make us feel after, feelings informed by our beliefs. We often imagine it boosts our confidence, our mood and or helps us relax, all understandable ideas, but also inaccurate enough to backfire.
The brain-centricity of this week’s news make it a turning point, but real change will not happen overnight. As if to illustrate, a story ran alongside it peddling the “good news” that alcohol may prolong our lives. No matter, it seems, these reports were slammed by experts in alcohol and longevity as misleading speculation.
But these lapses of collective reason do not spoil the real good news about the path of our relationship with alcohol. The ice has been broken about mental health which has gone from taboo to borderline trendy, with young people drinking less. The internet, for all its problems, has put us in touch with our psychological quirks, both good and bad. And we can inform, organise and support each other better than ever.
There are still formidable alcohol icebergs out there which will come to wider recognition in due course. We can be sure of that. But we also have the knowledge and tools to minimise risk. It can only get better, even if it is sometimes a bumpy ride. ■