Brain damage from alcohol threatens one Kiwi in five

By Martin Johnston

Alcohol treatment groups are calling for an education campaign to warn the one in five New Zealanders estimated to be at risk of brain damage from years of sustained binge drinking.

Staff of an Australian support service for those with alcohol-related brain impairment will tell an addictions conference in Auckland this week of their experience in helping some of the 2 million Australians they estimate have the condition.

New Zealand's Alcohol Advisory Council says 785,000 people - a fifth of the population - drink regularly, often daily, and binge-drink "with equal regularity".

Drinking more than the World Health Organisation-recommended maximums of six standard drinks for men or three for females at one drinking session is considered potentially harmful.

The Australian support service, arbias, says that drinking at that level for eight to 10 years puts people at risk of alcohol-related brain damage.

Arbias senior clinical neuro-psychologist and chairman Martin Jackson "conservatively" calculates that nearly 80,000 people in New Zealand - around a tenth of the regular binge drinkers - have undiagnosed brain damage from their drinking.

The chief executive of the Victorian-state-funded, not-for-profit service, Sonia Berton, said that in its earlier stages the condition was easy for people to fob off as being related to advancing age or stress.

It was hard to diagnose and progressed slowly, starting with memory loss and difficulty planning.

It often went unnoticed until the damage was severe.

Symptoms grew over time to include anxiety, paranoia, depression, anger and confusion.

The condition was usually permanent. "People think this is an issue that belongs to a wino on the street, someone with a paper bag and meths. That's such rubbish."

She urged the creation of a national education campaignto warn people of the condition.

Alcohol Healthwatch director Rebecca Williams and the manager of Auckland's Community Drug and Alcohol Services, Robert Steenhuisen, agreed an education campaign was needed.

"It's new ground for all of us," said Ms Williams, whose group will host the arbias staff for a two-day training session for health practitioners and others.

Mr Steenhuisen, a convener of the conference, said alcohol-related brain damage was under-diagnosed, particularly in its early stages, "The main focus of our services is at the extreme end, when people can't look after themselves," he said.

His organisation's staff talked with clients about the consequences of heavy drinking, but routine screening for alcohol-related brain damage was not practised in New Zealand.

"I agree there should be a lot more focus on informing the public of the risks of chronic alcohol abuse."

But routinely screening every client with an alcohol problem for brain damage would require enormous resources and he did not support the idea.

It could detract from the main purpose of the first session, which was to identify the problem and help the person find ways to reduce or quit drinking.

"There's use for brain-injury screening, but that would depend on the issues people present with. We wouldn't want to do it routinely."

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