Middle-class professionals in the UK are drinking to problem levels, according to two separate reports, published last month.
High earners in professional jobs, such as doctors, lawyers, and teachers, are much more likely to be regular alcohol drinkers than those on average incomes, according to NHS Digital and the Office for National Statistics.
The surveys also found that how much people drink varies with age. A fifth of people surveyed said they did not drink at all.
Data from previous years in the Health Survey for England showed the most harmful drinking was among middle-aged people, who were more likely to drink every day. “The over-45s particularly are drinking more regularly but not thinking they’re in danger”, says one addictions expert.
“Middle-class drinkers are unlikely to pay attention to government health warnings as they don’t see themselves as getting excessively drunk. They can certainly withstand increases in prices,” he says. “Furthermore, many middle-class professionals appear to be functioning quite highly at work.”
Without financial consequences or impaired performance at work, many middle-class professionals carry on drinking, ignoring the health warnings about increased risk of cancer, heart disease and liver disease. For women in particular, there is an 11% increase in the chance of developing breast cancer even at so-called safe levels of alcohol consumption.
Alcohol experts believe that there are several myths which support the rise in middle-aged, middle-class problem drinking. One expert talks about the “myth of wine at home”. He claims that professionals who drink wine in the evening are persistently in denial about the damage their drinking habits do.
“It’s very common amongst professional people in demanding jobs to come home and seek relief from stress or professional worries by downing a glass or two of wine,” he says. “One glass becomes two or three or four - many wine drinkers are happily drinking two-thirds of a bottle a night, but because they’re not in the pub, and it’s often decent wine. There’s a belief that they’re ok.”
Another myth, he believes, is what he calls the “functioning well at work myth”. Many professional people, who routinely endanger their health with alcohol, believe that if they still perform in their job, then their alcohol intake is not something to worry about.
Data from the two reports shows that people earning more than £40,000 a year, are more likely to develop excessive alcohol habits.
One addiction counsellor, working in the City of London, says: “A well-paid job and the ability to carry it out, are often the greatest barriers to people taking stock of their alcohol issues. Many of us still have the stereotypical image of a man on a park bench, drinking spirits from a paper bag, as the true alcoholic. Sadly, plenty of men and women, who turn up for work every day, are drinking to excessive levels.”
Current Government health guidelines advise drinking no more than 14 units a week on a regular basis. The Chief Medical Officer (CMO) guidelines for both men and women suggest:
- To keep health risks from alcohol to a low level, it is safest not to drink more than 14 units a week on a regular basis.
- If you drink as much as 14 units per week, it’s best to spread your drinking evenly over three or more days. If you have one or two heavy drinking episodes a week, you increase your risk of death from long-term illness and injuries
- The risk of developing a range of health problems, including cancers of the mouth, throat and breast, increases the more you drink on a regular basis.
“Government guidelines and all the information about risks associated with heavy drinking, seems to have little impact on the professional classes,” says one addiction expert. “What we do notice, however, is many professional people getting in touch when they notice consumption levels creeping up.”
He goes on: “If you’re using alcohol to manage stress and anxiety, then you will develop a greater tolerance to alcohol, as you will with any drug. To put it simply, you have to drink more and more to get the relaxed or numb state you first sought. I hear from many professional people who now drink one or two bottles of wine an evening.”
Consumption of alcohol at this level carries a risk of long-term illness. Organs known to be damaged by long-term alcohol misuse include the brain and nervous system, heart, liver and pancreas. Heavy drinking can also increase your blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels, both of which are major risk factors for heart attacks and strokes.
If the physical risks are not convincing enough, then often the psychological consequences convince heavy drinkers that their consumption might be counter-productive. One alcohol expert says: “The paradox is that, while most middle-class professionals use alcohol to manage stress or to help them sleep, they are in fact adding to the problem with alcohol.”
Regular drinking can affect the quality of sleep, making you tired and sluggish. This is because drinking disrupts your sleep cycle. When you drink alcohol before bed, you may fall into deep sleep more quickly. This is why some people find drinking alcohol helps them drop off to sleep. However, as the night goes on, you spend less time in this deep sleep and more in the less restful rapid eye movement (REM) phase of sleep.
Anxiety and depression are both made worse by alcohol. Alcohol is a depressant. It disrupts the delicate processes and chemicals of the brain, affecting our thoughts, feelings and actions and sometimes our long-term mental health. Regular drinking lowers the levels of serotonin in your brain – a chemical which helps regulate your mood.
“Far from helping with stress, anxiety and depression, a wine habit in the evening will make matters far worse,” says one expert. “Add to that what we know now about the long-term health effects, and we can see a large group of the UK population in trouble. A good job and a good salary does nothing to mitigate the damage.”