Monday, September 24, 2007

Remember, booze can cause blackouts

23 Sep 2007, ST

If you have alcohol- induced amnesia or blackouts, it's time to quit drinking like a fish, say experts

By Douglas Tseng

LAST week, general manager Rick Lee Chuan Huat was sentenced to seven months jail and fined $3,500 in a drink-driving accident that killed a 56-year-old bystander.

During the trial, it was revealed that 49-year-old Lee had been so intoxicated that he could not recall the tragic events that transpired after he left a party in October last year. A breathalyser test revealed that he had 107 micrograms of alcohol per 100ml of breath - more than three times the legal limit of 35 micrograms.

The reason for his loss of memory: Mr Lee had alcoholic amnesia.

According to experts LifeStyle spoke to, such booze-induced memory loss - or blackouts - is not uncommon, particularly among heavy drinkers.

'They do not have to be unconscious or physically immobile, but can be still doing complex physical activities, but have no memory of them,' says psychiatrist Munidasa Winslow.

He is the director and senior consultant with the Community Addictions Management Program at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH).

Alcoholic amnesia usually lasts for a few hours, when the blood alcohol is high. But there have been instances of blackouts that stretch over a few days.

The cause of the blackout has less to do with the quality than the quantity of liquor consumed, he says. 'You are more susceptible to blackouts the more you drink, especially on a regular basis.'

While a blackout is your body's way of saying you have been drinking like a fish, it is also an indication of other hooch-related maladies, both physical and mental.

Habitual heavy drinkers with chronic blackouts usually suffer from liver and heart diseases, and for male drinkers - pay attention - erectile dysfunction.

Dr Winslow says such excessive inebriation can also affect the neurons, or the nerve cells, causing neurological damage.

In extreme cases, he adds, drinkers can also get Wernicke's encephalopathy - a condition characterised by short-term memory loss, confusion and gross uncoordination of muscle movements.

Another degenerative brain disorder is Korsakoff's psychoses, typified by severe memory loss, confabulation (fabricating information to cover up the memory lapses) and apathy.

There have also been cases of alcohol-induced dementia, which is generally irreversible, Dr Winslow says.

While dementia is normally associated with the elderly, he recalls treating a 35-year-old patient suffering from alcoholic dementia.

Between April last year and March this year, IMH attended to 390 alcoholics. The latest figures show that 300 alcoholics have sought medical treatment between April and August this year.

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