Warnings over rise in Norfolk’s young women with alcohol-related liver disease

A hospital consultant has warned that he is seeing more women in their 20s with alcohol-related liver damage.

In Norfolk and Waveney, the number of women being admitted to hospital with alcohol-attributable conditions has been on the increase for the past five years.

And an addiction charity says it has seen women under the age of 25 telling its staff that they binge drink an average of 20 days every month - a rise from an average of eight days three years earlier.

Dr Martin Phillips, a consultant gastroenterologist for Spire Norwich Hospital and the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, says 15 years it was extremely rare to see young women with alcohol-related liver damage but it was now more common and the youngest patient he has treated for the condition was just 19.

He said: 'It's a common misconception that women can 'handle' their alcohol intake just as well as men. That may date back to the 'ladette' culture we created in the 1990s. However, it's simply not true: a woman's liver cannot break down alcohol as quickly as a man's - this is a biological fact.

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'Therefore women are more susceptible to the physical damage of excessive drinking hence their units being lower.

'Women who drink excessively for a period of time can have difficulties conceiving and significantly increase their risk of breast cancer.

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'I have women in my clinic who are in their 20s suffering from cirrhosis of the liver (the liver is unable to repair damaged cells preventing it form carrying out its function properly) through a dependency they have developed over a period of time with alcohol.

'Just 15 years ago seeing women at this age was extremely rare, but unfortunately it is becoming more common.

'The youngest patient I have treated for alcohol-related liver damage was just 19 years old.'

Dr Phillips is warning people to seek help if they become dependant on alcohol, as by the time he sees them as patients they are at the point of having serious health problems.

He added that alcoholism is often a learned behaviour, and is urging parents to think about their attitude to drinking, particularly when they are with their children.

Norfolk-based addiction charity Norcas has seen a rise over the last five to 10 years in young women getting in contact for help with alcohol dependency.

The charity uses a screening tool called Audit, which comes up with a score for identifying problem and dependant drinkers - the higher the score, the worse the problem, with a highest possible score of 40.

The average Audit score for female under-25s has risen from 10 to 30 in the past five years. For young males it has risen from 19 to 28.

The number of days drinking above the binge limit (six units) per month has also risen from 8.5 to 20 for women under 25 and dropped from 15.5 to 14.5 for young men over the last three years.

Andrew Cleveland, operations manager for Norcas, said: 'The increase in presentation of young women with alcohol dependency over the past 10 to 15 years can in part be attributed to a significant change in attitude and resulting relationship to alcohol.

'For many young women and men, going out and getting drunk is an accepted lifestyle choice; in many ways the norm in their peer groups.

'Young people can see themselves as invincible and the impact their drinking may be having on their health, both short and long term, is very far from their minds.'

In Norfolk and Waveney, the NHS funds alcohol liaison teams at each of the three hospitals, and also puts money into the SOS Bus in Norwich and Project Safehaven in King's Lynn, both of which offer safety at night for people who have had a lot to drink.

The Norfolk Drug and Alcohol Partnership, which includes Norfolk County Council, NHS Norfolk and Waveney and Norfolk Constabulary, helps to fund a range of schemes run by The Matthew Project, Norcas, the mental health trust's Trust Alcohol and Drugs Service and a Community Alcohol and Drugs Service.

James Fullam, senior research and information officer for the Norfolk Drug and Alcohol Team, said: 'Statistics show that five per cent of women entering treatment for alcohol related problems with a specialist substance misuse treatment agency are under 30 years of age.

'An increasing proportion of the female population of Norfolk and Waveney are being admitted to hospital for alcohol-attributable reasons.'

While the number of women being admitted has risen, it is still much lower than the number of men being admitted to hospital and Norfolk fares significantly better than other areas of the country and Great Yarmouth and Waveney is about average in this respect.

Norfolk coroner William Armstrong said while he does not look into all alcohol-related deaths, it was his general experience that they were on the increase, whether directly or indirectly attributable to alcohol.

He said: 'There is also an increasing number of people dying as a result of acute alcohol poisoning. I have seen cases where very substantial amounts of alcohol were consumed and the person died as a direct result of alcohol poisoning.'

Mr Armstrong said he was encouraged that the government was taking steps to address the problem but he would be keen to see further policies introduced, as well as GPs continuing to engage with their patients on their drinking habits.

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