Story was researched, reported, and written for Introduction to Health and Medical Journalism.
The title of the panel was “Alcohol: One of the Most Popular and Most Dangerous Drugs of All,” and the experts seated in front of the crowd consisted of a professor, independent journalists, and a pediatrician who doubled as a child psychologist. The conversation began with the ever-debated topic of women drinking during pregnancy, flowed into the extensive research behind the rise in alcohol-related issues among the aging population, and ended with the debunking of Alcoholics Anonymous as a fraud and broken method. “Drinking has historically been a young person’s activity,” said Rick Grucza, an associate professor of psychiatry and an epidemiologist at Washington University. However, this panel at the American Health Care Journalists’ Conference made perfectly clear that drinking is now a pervasive problem.
Grucza’s research examines trends in alcohol use in America, but his most recent work has been debunking someone else’s research, specifically a study that claimed alcoholism was on the rise in a very dramatic way across all ages. “My take home message…isn’t so much that we’re seeing this across the board alcohol epidemic,” said Grucza. “It’s that we’re steadily increasing our alcohol consumption in the context of the aging population.” The most significant increase has been in the alcohol-related issues, emergency room admissions, and (more importantly) alcohol-caused deaths. He ended his talk with a few more statistics, but didn’t tell the audience why he thinks this particular age group has a particularly problematic relationship with alcohol.
Regardless of why they have developed this dependency on alcohol, the question becomes: How do we help them? “80% of all alcohol and drug-treatment facilities are rooted in faith and abstinence-based principles of Alcoholics Anonymous,” said Gabrielle Glaser, a journalist who covers mental health. Yet, despite the popularity and prevalence of this program, Glaser pointed out that the success rate of AA is actually a single-digit percentage. In addition, the fancy rehab facilities that cost upwards of thousands and thousands of dollars are being run by people without any qualifications, said Glaser. “It’s important to know that most of the treatment offered in these centers is administered by addictions counselors whose main qualification is that they’ve gone through the 12-step program and are sober.” And when these programs inevitably fail, people are left broke and broken. “We need to get away from our moralizing and allow people to make the choices that are best for themselves,” said Glaser. Although her statement seems counter-intuitive out of context, she explained that these programs fail because people are removed from their daily lives, their support systems, and “treated” by non-licensed “professionals,” then dumped back into their old life, surrounded by these haunting pressures. Rather than continue to endorse these facilities and AA as being methods to success, Glaser listed off apps and other techniques that have worked for the countless individuals she has interviewed over the last nine years of reporting on this specific issue. “We need to bring this problem out of the shadows,” she said.
But what about the youngest people who are affected by alcohol? The ones that actually can’t do anything to prevent themselves from the damage that will inevitably occur, albeit in varying degrees depending on their exposure? “Prenatal exposure to alcohol is the leading preventable cause of birth defects, intellectual disability, and neurodevelopmental disorders,” said Dr. Yasmin Senturias, a pediatrician and child psychologist in North Carolina. In fact, despite the back-and-forth that has occurred over the past few years, there is no safe time, no safe amount, and no safe kind of alcohol for an expectant mother to consume during her pregnancy. No exceptions.
The debate around this particular issue, as Dr. Senturias pointed out, is that some women feel it is a judgement issue with people telling them what they can and can’t do with their own bodies. “It’s a medical issue,” said Dr. Senturias. It’s as simple as that. Alcohol is an agent that causes birth defects, and they exist on a wide spectrum of visibility.
“Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) affect 2-5% of children in the US,” said Dr. Senturias. She explained that a baby’s brain develops during all three trimesters of a pregnancy, so the brain can be affected at any point when alcohol is consumed, even the smallest amount. Unfortunately, these children are then left as “10 second people in a 3 second world,” said Dr. Senturias. Although facial features many affect a small percentage of these children, many others suffer just as much through cognitive development issues, memory, learning, and problems with their daily or social lives (her list of examples went on for five slides). “Alcohol can reduce the number of brain cells; it can cause premature cell death; [and] it can decrease the wiring of the brain so that there’s a slower processing,” said Dr. Senturias.
Perhaps the most impactful take-home message from the panel regarding the dangers of alcohol on these different groups was a story that Dr. Senturias shared about one of her patients. The little boy said to his mother, “I hope you understand I really just can’t remember multiplication. I just want you to love me.”