Tuesday, March 4, 2008

What drinking really does to you?

AT the age of 52, Anne Collins considers her youthful appearance something of a blessing.

She is often mistaken for being anything up to a decade younger than she actually is, and enjoys the fact that her face and body have not yet fallen prey to the normal ravages of time.

Yet Anne has just taken part in a unique experiment that has shattered any illusions she had about keeping her looks for very much longer, The Daily Mail in London reports

Conducted by UK television show Tonight as part of an investigation into British middle-class drinking habits, the experiment involved Anne being digitally aged by 25 years.

Rather than simply take into consideration the natural passing of the years, the scientists who constructed the images have also factored in the ageing effects of the 45-plus units of alcohol that Anne consumes each week.

Anne insists she does not have any kind of drink problem, and that her wine intake is no more than that of tens of thousands of other busy mothers like her.

But the results of the ITV Tonight investigation into just how her appearance and health will be affected in the long term tell a very different story.

Anne describes the pictures as "horrifying".

Gone are her bright eyes, dewy complexion and refined features. Instead, she has huge wrinkly eye bags, droopy jowls, sallow skin and ruddy cheeks covered in broken veins.

"I took one look at the picture and I thought 'I've got to stop drinking,"' says Anne, a cookery teacher.

"My eyes looked dead. I had huge, ugly frown lines on my forehead and a horrible turkey neck.

"I always hoped I'd age with dignity. Instead, I looked like a miserable old hag carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders.

"I had no idea that the couple of glasses of wine I look forward to at the end of a busy day were causing me so much harm.

"I've always loved drinking wine - I love the taste of it and the lovely warm feeling it gives me.

"But now I haven't been able to stop thinking about how awful I'll look in 25 years' time if I carry on drinking the way I do now."

While we often read about the epidemic of teenage binge drinking, new evidence suggests equally destructive patterns of drinking exist among middle-class, middle-aged mothers - with many, like Anne, drinking dangerous amounts of alcohol on a daily basis.

The Government recommends that men drink no more than 21 units per week, and women no more than 14 units. That's about eight to ten small glasses of wine for women.

Anne admits she has spent the past decade or so consuming more than three times that amount.

She is far from alone. According to the Office for National Statistics, almost a quarter of adult women report drinking on five days or more per week; and recent NHS figures state that 20 per cent of women drink more than the recommended number of units.

A recent survey by website Netmums found that 49 per cent of mothers drink regularly at home, and 85 per cent say they do so to unwind after a stressful day.

"The number one stress factor for mothers is lack of 'me time', which means not having time to sit and think or simply do something enjoyable, like read a magazine or have a relaxing bath," says Siobhan Freegard of Netmums.

"These women want to find a way to wind down - and the quickest way to do that is with a glass of wine."

Dr Mark Wright, consultant hepatologist at Southampton General Hospital, says he has seen an increase in the past decade in the number of middle-aged women facing serious medical problems - such as end-stage liver failure - as a result of heavy drinking.

"People like Anne think that because they drink Merlot and Pinot Grigio rather than cheap cider, their behaviour could not possibly fall into the realm of 'alcoholism'," he says.

"They refuse to believe there are any similarities between themselves and teenage binge drinkers who down shot after shot of flavoured spirits.

"They think they are not drinking to excess because they don't get intoxicated every night or notice the day-to-day ill-effects of the amount they are drinking.

"But the truth is they are. Even if they are not alcoholics, many are teetering on the edge of alcohol dependency - and causing their body real harm.

"The most obvious effects of alcohol are premature ageing and wrinkling of the skin (which are thought to be caused by the body having to 'work harder', rather like an engine driving uphill, because the alcohol effectively poisons the body).

"But it goes beyond that. Like Anne, thousands of women across the country are putting themselves at increased risk of everything from breast cancer and osteoporosis to strokes and cardiovascular problems."

Even so, Anne clearly finds it hard to accept that she drinks too much.


In my teens and early 20s I did drink a lot, I'll admit that," says Anne, who lives in Fleet, Hampshire, with her husband Paul, 40, a landscape gardener, and their children Aaron, 15, Brooke, 13, and Euan, ten.

"But I haven't touched spirits for years, and I certainly don't drink alcopops.

"I started drinking at home every night when the children were very young. Paul was then working long hours as an IT consultant, and once the kids were finally in bed, I'd find myself thinking: 'Oh, I need a glass of wine!'

For me, having a drink was a way of winding down.

"I certainly never drank enough to get drunk. It was simply that a few glasses of wine helped me dispel the tension that had built up during the day.

"I grew up in a family where it was normal to have a drink every night.

"My mum still likes a tipple in the evenings - a sherry or a glass of wine - and I'm the same.

"I simply enjoy a few glasses of good-quality wine.'

Over time, though, Anne's drinking increased. Whereas once it was just a glass or two an evening, for the past few years it's been three or four, and on Friday and Saturday nights at least a bottle.

Anne admits that more recently, since binge drinking became a serious national debate, she has begun to wonder if she is drinking too much - but until now her attitude has consistently been one of denial.

"I realised from reading the newspapers that I was consuming well over the recommended amount of 14 units per week," says Anne.

"But somehow I always managed to justify it to myself. I used to kid myself that my huge glass of wine contained only one unit.

"Or I'd tell myself that it didn't matter how much I

drank as long as I didn't get drunk, and that I didn't drink more than my friends.

"It wasn't as though my life was being affected in any negative way by my drinking. I didn't wake up with a hangover and I could still function perfectly normally during the day.

"My mantra was always that life is for living, and what was the point of worrying about how much alcohol I was consuming when I could get run over by a bus tomorrow.

"Even the fact that some years ago I was diagnosed with high blood pressure and a stomach condition - gastritis - which was clearly being aggravated by alcohol wasn't enough to make me consider cutting down on the amount I drank."

Now, though, the shock of seeing the digitally-aged photograph of herself has finally made Anne take stock.

As part of the TV investigation, she was also shown a visual example of how much alcohol she consumed in the week.

"Twenty or so glasses of wine - the amount I drink each week - were laid out on a table for me to see," says Anne.

"I took one look at it and felt utterly ashamed of myself. It looked like the sort of table you'd find in a nightclub, crammed with drinks belonging to a large group of people.

"Yet this was the amount I was putting away each week. I'm only 5ft 1in and weigh just 8 stone.

"The thought of all that alcohol inside my body made me feel sick.

"I realised, too, that I was setting a really bad example for my children, especially now the oldest is getting near the age when they start to drink.

"I was also shown photographs of livers that have been destroyed by alcohol abuse - and they weren't pretty pictures.

"Thankfully, a test revealed that my liver hadn't been harmed by the amount I was drinking.

"I cried with relief when I realised that my own liver was OK."

More ominous were the results of an alcohol dependency test. This was comprised of a series of questions relating to alcohol intake and a person's attitude to drinking.

Scores of eight and over are said to show some level of dependency.

Anne scored 12, admitting to things like "drinking more than six drinks on at least one occasion a week" and "finding herself unable to stop drinking once she's started".

"I was slightly alarmed by my score, but I maintain that I was drinking out of habit and not dependency," she says.

"I certainly never woke up in the morning thinking about alcohol, and I never craved drink during the daytime."

This, says Anne, is borne out by the fact that she is now halfway through a four week alcohol-free detox and has not suffered any withdrawal symptoms or cravings at all.

"If I truly had been dependent on alcohol, I wouldn't be finding being teetotal so easy," she says.

"Now that I understand the harm I was causing myself, I haven't missed alcohol at all.

"I can say without doubt that I was never addicted to alcohol. It had just crept into my life and become a part of my daily routine - as it is with millions of other people these days."

After just a fortnight, Anne has already noticed a positive change in her health. Not only does she have more energy, her stomach condition has improved, too.

And although she is finding it harder to fall asleep at night without the help of alcohol, she says the sleep she is getting is of significantly better quality.

In time, Anne hopes that by drinking less she will also be able to bring her high blood pressure under control.

Socially, too, she says her life is better without alcohol.

"I hadn't realised it, but because I was drinking at home every night, I'd ended up a virtual prisoner in my own home.

"If Paul was doing something like watching football, because I'd drunk too much to drive the car I'd have no choice but to sit there with him.

"Now, I've rediscovered the pleasures of popping over to a friend's house in the evening to have a cup of tea.

"For so long I've linked alcohol to having fun and relaxing - yet I've realised I have actually got much more freedom as a result of not drinking."

Having been presented with the reality of how alcohol is likely to affect her looks and her health over the coming years, Anne is determined to change her habits.

"I will drink again once my detox is over - but I will absolutely not return to my old habits," she says.

"I'm going to stick to 14 units a week, and not drink at all between Monday and Thursday. Now that I've come this far, I'm determined that I'm going to change my ways."

Whether she sticks to her word remains to be seen.

But Anne's story should serve as a warning to a middle-aged generation for whom one glass of wine a night is never quite enough.

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