In recent times we have seen a tremendous amount of media space allocated to the problems of teenage binge drinking.
Although this continues to be a great problem, particularly among young Australian females, many experts are concerned that it is diverting attention from another group who appear to be causing great damage to themselves -“ people in their 40s who are consuming large quantities of alcohol at home.
An article printed in the UK paper The Guardian last week quoted doctors warning that many patients with chronic liver damage are people in their 40s who quietly drink too much at home without being aware of the health consequences.
Most of the alcohol a person drinks is eventually broken down by the liver.
Normal liver function is essential to life.
Alcohol-induced liver damage disrupts the body’s metabolism, eventually causing even greater problems.
Cirrhosis is the medical term to describe excessive development of scar tissue (fibrosis) within a liver.
Usually, when the liver is acutely damaged, some of the liver cells die and the organ then regenerates itself without scarring.
If, however, a chronic or repeated disease process damages the liver, then scarring starts to develop.
This process usually starts slowly and progresses over many years without causing any symptoms.
Eventually excess scar tissue builds up and this begins to interfere with some of the vital functions of the liver.
At this point, the liver is no longer able to regenerate itself sufficiently.
Symptoms can develop at any stage, but usually occur relatively late on in the scarring process.
Many of the symptoms are caused by the complications of cirrhosis when the liver is failing.
A number of conditions can lead to cirrhosis, including excessive intake of alcohol.
Professor Ian Gilmore, a liver specialist at the Royal Liverpool Hospitals Trust, was quoted as saying, The rate of cirrhosis has gone up tenfold since the 70s. Patients with a deteriorating liver have no symptoms initially but later become tired and lethargic, and suffer from gastrointestinal problems and eventually jaundice.
On our wards we do see people who are in their 20s and 30s, but most are in their 40s. They are often people who have been drinking at home for years, and suddenly they arrive here -“ they are yellow and their abdomens are distended. Not all of them are dependent on drink.
But the terrible thing is that the first warning signs they get are that their livers are wiped out.
The situation is very similar in Australia.
Many people believe that alcohol can only cause problems if you are young or if you are dependent on the drug.
Susceptibility to liver damage differs considerably among individuals, so that even among people drinking similar amounts of alcohol, only some develop cirrhosis.
Genetic factors, gender and dietary factors can all play a part.
Although most people won’t develop problems it is always a good idea to ask your doctor for a full medical check-up if you drink regularly.
Remember: if you do not want any negative consequences, do not use the drug and, no matter how many times you have used a substance, never be blas?