Now a new decade has begun, everyone is making resolutions to go to the gym, stop smoking and eat less chocolate. But above all else I would advise all of you to look at your relationship with alcohol — and to cut back.
As I argue in my new book, alcohol has the most profound effect on our physical and mental wellbeing and we should be encouraging everyone to drink less.
After all, Boris Johnson gave up drinking it during the election and my advice to him would be to have all MPs breathalysed before they cast votes in the Commons.
Alcohol, I’m sorry to report, is the chief substance that oils the wheels of our government. In the Palace of Westminster alone, there are nearly 30 places to drink, all subsidised.
Numerous MPs have admitted to at least getting merry while on Commons business, while some have been roaring drunk. One member described being too intoxicated to walk through the voting chambers.
And all this matters, because even relatively modest amounts of alcohol impair a person’s judgment.
One main reason is that the part of the brain that keeps you in control — the frontal cortex — is the first part switched off by booze. Not desirable when MPs are discussing matters of national importance.
That’s not all alcohol can do, of course. As a doctor, I’ve devoted most of my professional career to studying its effects on the brain and the body, and I’ve co-written three scientific reports that all came to one devastating conclusion.
Alcohol is by some margin the most damaging drug of all. Why? Because of the harm it does to society as well as to the individual — with taxpayers inevitably picking up the huge bill. Similar studies have been carried out since, in Europe, and Australia, each with the same outcome.
In the UK, we’re particularly keen on drinking — so keen that our alcohol consumption has nearly doubled since the Sixties. According to the Global Drug Survey, Britons get drunk an average of once a week, and one in ten of us are drunk on five or more days a week.
A staggering 10.8 million of us drink at levels that pose a risk to our health. Indeed, alcohol is now the leading cause of death for men aged between 16 and 54, cutting life short for around 30,000 people a year.
Alcohol is also the reason policing public drunkenness costs us more than £6 billion a year. It’s why the costs to the NHS are over £3 billion.
Did you know that in the past half-century, deaths from liver disease in the UK increased fivefold? Or that up to half of all people in beds in orthopaedic wards are there because of alcohol-related injuries?
Alcohol is a poison — and over the past 20 years, scientists have been learning a lot more about the havoc it wreaks on the body. Think you’re safe having a couple of glasses each evening? Read on.
A couple of years ago, we discovered that just a single drink a day increases the risk of breast cancer. Even light to moderate drinking raises your risk of developing an irregular heartbeat (cardiac arrhythmia), which can make you feel faint, short of breath and potentially lead to a stroke.
Most people still think the chief danger from drinking too much is cirrhosis of the liver. It isn’t: the biggest killers associated with alcohol, we learn, are strokes and heart attacks. After that come various liver diseases and at least eight different types of cancer.
Drinking also causes brain damage: at least one in five cases of dementia, it’s thought, is probably due to alcohol.
What’s frankly terrifying, though, is that a large 30-year study found evidence of a faster cognitive decline in people who drank only up to seven units weekly, than in teetotallers. That’s the equivalent of having two large glasses of wine plus a small shot of spirits in a week.
Don’t think you’re a safe driver if you’re under the legal limit of 80mg blood alcohol level (which allows a man to drink roughly four units, or two pints, and a woman three units or a large glass of wine.) A 2010 government report concluded that if your blood alcohol concentration is between 50mg and 80mg, you are up to six times more likely to die in a collision than if you’d drunk nothing at all.
It gets worse: having alcohol in your blood has an even greater impact on whether you die as a result of a crash.
You may think having just one pint of beer for the road is perfectly all right, but even that is doubtful.
New neuroscience research from Sussex University found that one pint can compromise your road safety. Your co-ordination may not be affected, but you’ll have an exaggerated feeling of being in control of the car — and overconfidence can be dangerous.
There’s another mistake a lot of people make: they think it’s OK to drink a bit more on holiday. It’s not. If a woman drinks five units a day (less than three standard glasses of wine) for just two or three weeks, she has five times more risk than a teetotaller of developing a fatty liver — the first stage of serious liver disease. For men, it’s eight units a day.
You may think you’ll be fine if you follow the UK chief medical officer’s advice to drink no more than 14 units a week. And if you stick to these levels (roughly two pints of beer or two glasses of wine a day, spread out over three days a week, with days off in between), your risk of dying due to an alcohol-related condition is only around one per cent. But any more than that, and the risks rise disproportionately.
One study concluded that having a couple of drinks on more than four days a week raises the risk of premature death by 20 per cent.
And a recent report from the European Commission concluded that drinking any more than two units a year increases your risk of cancer, although the increased risk is very small. That’s just one pint of low-strength lager!
Hang on — what about all those studies that apparently showed benefits from drinking a daily glass or two of red wine? Sorry to disappoint, but a 2018 review of all the evidence — published in the leading medical journal, The Lancet — concluded that any partially protective effect on the heart is more than cancelled by negative effects, such as raised risk of cancer.
Let me put it this way: If alcohol had been discovered in the past year or two, it would be illegal. The safe limit, if you applied current food-standards criteria, would be one glass of wine a year.
Would you take a new drug if you were told it would increase your risk of cancer, dementia and heart disease, or that it shortened your life? You wouldn’t touch it.
Yet over the past 50 years, alcohol has become entrenched in our lives. We drink for social bonding. We drink together to clinch business deals and come to agreements. We drink to celebrate the birth of a child, to commiserate with each other when someone dies. We drink because we’ve had a stressful day at the office because we’re feeling anxious or just because it’s Friday.
When a nephew turned 18, I went to buy him a birthday card. I counted 23 cards for 18th birthdays before I found one that didn’t focus on alcohol. What kind of message is that for a young person?
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