Heavy drinkers lose brain agility

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MANAGERS who are heavy social drinkers are likely to experience difficulties in taking on new ideas because of the hidden effects of alcohol, new research has shown.

The results from a follow-up study of heavy drinkers show that even when they had cut down, damage to some thought processes, including mental agility and the ability to deal with concepts, continued.

The survey was conducted by two clinical psychologists; Christine Williams, who works in hospitals in Harrogate, and Adrian Skinner, of the University of Leeds. It began five years ago with heavy drinkers who drank on average 115 units of alcohol a week. This is equivalent to eight pints, or nearly three bottles of wine, a day. The recommended limit for men is 21 or 14 for women.

One man was drinking 630 units a week - three bottles of whisky a day. But he had not been classed as alcoholic and was not being treated for alcoholism.

When tested again last year, even though the drinkers had cut down to an average of 19 units a week, the cognitive damage was still evident. The major problem was with handling abstract ideas and in grasping new concepts, the researchers said.

'We interviewed and tested them in 1987 and again in 1992. Although stopping drinking or cutting down allows for some recovery, some of the skills continued to decline.

'The group had volunteered to join a hospital programme to try to cut down. None had any signs of ill health caused by their drinking at the time of the first survey or were being treated for it,' Mrs Williams said.

Mr Skinner said: 'It looks as if the damage has been permanent. There was a 20 per cent deficit in some abilities. There was an age effect as well. In the over-50s all in the drinkers' group found some tasks more difficult compared with only one in the control group of people who drank only to recommended levels.

'The implications are quite worrying,' he told the conference. 'The findings suggest that a manager, for example, would have difficulties with new ideas. But this might not be evident. Conversational skills were not impaired.' He added that there may be many people who were not aware of how their drinking was affecting them.