Drink may cause ‘invisible’ brain harm

MORE than 4,000 Irish people could be suffering from an “invisible” serious brain injury caused by alcohol abuse, according to research.

It suggests one quarter will die from the little-known condition and another 1,000 will need long-term nursing care, at a cost of tens of millions of euro a year.

The research said there were no national policies in relation to alcohol-related brain injury and no public awareness of it.

The research, the first of its kind, was commissioned by the North West Alcohol Forum, a body aimed at reducing alcohol-related harm.

The study is being examined by the Department of Health and the HSE and the forum hopes to have the condition recognised in the National Substance Misuse Strategy.

Forum director Eamon O’Kane said: “This is the first study of its kind on this condition in Ireland.

“It is a term used to describe the physical impairment to the brain sustained as a direct result of alcohol consumption.

“It is often described as an invisible condition because of its complexity in terms of diagnosis.

“We have put a name on it. People for years have talked about dry drunks, whose brain has gone, whose body is wrecked. These are all alcohol-related brain injury.”

He said this brain injury results from a combination of factors, including toxic effects on brain cells, vitamin and nutritional deficiencies, head injuries and disturbances to the blood supply in the brain.

With the assistance of the HSE, the study identified 163 alcohol-related brain injury admissions to acute hospitals in the North-west (Donegal, Sligo and Leitrim) over a five-year period. The number, which fluctuated slightly over the years, rose from 34 in 2005 to 39 in 2009.

The report said research suggests that alcohol-related brain injury accounts for 10% of people with dementia. Mr O’Kane said this didn’t mean alcohol abuse can cause dementia, rather that a percentage of people diagnosed as having dementia may actually have alcohol-related brain injury.

Based on the dementia population in the North-west, the study estimates that 245 may have alcohol-related brain injury.

National estimates put the number of people with dementia at 44,000 — suggesting that 4,400 people could have alcohol-related brain injury.

International research indicates that half of those with alcohol-related brain injury will either make a full or partial recovery. One quarter will die in hospital and one quarter will be admitted to long-term care.

Mr O’Kane estimated the cost to the North-west, in caring for 10 new alcohol-related brain injury patients each year over 10 years, was €21 million.

He said frontline hospital staff needed national direction on identifying, diagnosing and treating alcohol-related brain injury.

He said Ireland’s high rate of binge drinking was a “worrying trend” and would impact on alcohol-related brain injury levels in the population over time.

* www.nwaf.ie

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