CASE STUDY: Edward in Newcastle
Binge drinking is bad for your health. Fact. At most hospitals, health centres, GP surgeries, pregnancy clinics and other health facilities across the UK, you are sure to find leaflets and posters designed to hammer home that message: excessive alcohol consumption can seriously damage both your physical and mental wellbeing, and it can even kill you (or someone else: a family member, friend, colleague or someone you don’t even know).
As well as accelerating the aging process, heavy drinking on a regular basis can create an increased risk of:
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Liver cirrhosis
- Foetal Alcohol Syndrome, which can result in birth defects
- Some psychiatric conditions (anxiety, depression, stress)
- Impaired brain function
About alcohol-related brain damage
According to The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) in the USA, areas of the brain that are most vulnerable to alcohol-related damage are:
- The cerebral cortex – involved in the reception and processing of sensory information from the body, as well as decision-making, problem solving, planning, vision, hearing, and language 2
- The limbic system – important for feeling and expressing emotions
- The thalamus – important for communication within the brain
- The hypothalamus – releases hormones in response to stress and other stimuli, and is involved in basic behavioural and physiological functions, and
- The basal forebrain – the lower area of the front part of the brain, involved in learning and memory (Oscar–Berman 2000)
Binge drinking can kill cells in all the above brain areas. Yes, cells can regenerate later (if the affected person embraces total abstinence), but full brain facility / capacity can never be restored – there has simply been too much damage done, the results of which can prove catastrophic.
Which brings us to…
When Edward, a 45-year-old former police officer in Newcastle, frequently drank a great deal outside of working hours during his 20+ years ‘on the beat’, he never gave a second thought to the damage he was doing to his brain – only to his body:
“I put on so much weight over the years through drinking – it was a wonder I ever passed the annual Force medical! Also, my skin turned grey. I looked tired and miserable all the time. I started to get the shakes in my hands. And I aged dramatically.
But the gradual decline in my brain functionality was something I simply put down to getting older, or through being under so much pressure all the time at work. I never once attributed it to my excessive drinking.”
During his Police career, the amount of paperwork Edward was required to complete each week seemed to increase by the year. His alcohol consumption level rose in tandem. It wasn’t long before his superiors started to notice slip-ups in his work performance: spelling mistakes on handwritten statements, date and time errors in his arrest book, and inaccurate descriptions of crime scenes in his EAB (evidence and actions book).
Eventually, things came to a head:
“We – the Squad – had all worked very hard on gathering evidence against an extremely dangerous and ruthless criminal gang who were raking in fortunes through prostitution and drug dealing across the North East.”
“When my own written statements were torn apart by a barrister in court, the case collapsed and the gang walked free. The underlying cause of the case being lost was my drinking – the way my excessive alcohol consumption had destroyed brain cells, causing me to make critical errors.”
“I wouldn’t say that, after the court case, I was ostracised by the others – but things were definitely different at work. I was rightly disciplined. I felt so guilty for letting the side down – for letting my fellow officers, my superiors, and of course the crime gang’s victims down.”
Edward left Northumbria Police within eight months of the case collapsing in court.
Note: All names and references to specific government agencies/forces have been changed