Monday, 28 October 2013

You Only Live Once

This post was written by Natasha Clarke for her own blog, the original is here

As a break to celebrate the end of my Masters, I spent six weeks of my summer in Lake Bled, Slovenia. This is a small and picturesque town, and is also part of the route that many interrailers take. Thus the trip involved a fair amount of bar crawls, and due to this I saw many sights that will stay with me forever. I witnessed a topless primary school teacher parading barefoot on a dance floor covered in smashed glasses. I saw three Kiwis having a group sick session in the same bin. There were also a fair few drunken fights and midnight dips in the lake. Some nights I swear I could have been in Malia.

One night I heard a cross eyed, swaying interrailer slur “YOLO” as he polished off his 10th shot of the local 30% pelinkovak. Now unless you have been cooped up in a cell with no access to television, radio or any form of social media for the past few years then I am sure the majority of you will have heard the phrase YOLO. Wikipedia says it “implies that one should enjoy life, even if it entails taking risks”. Urban Dictionary describes it as “the dumbass’s excuse for something stupid that they did. Also one of the most annoying abbreviations ever…”. Regardless of which definition one might agree with, it’s an excuse for partaking in behaviour that may be dangerous, and is one that is frequently used amongst young people when it comes to drinking.

Holidays are a time when this phrase will be used frequently, a period when young people are known to take the greatest risk with their health, and every parent dreads the day their teenager utters the numbers 18 and 30. These getaways don’t involve culture and local delicacies; in fact they’re a breed of holiday that should come with a new liver as part of the package. A recent survey of British holidaymakers travelling to Majorca and Ibiza found that over half of participants were intoxicated five or more times and 90% got drunk at least once. Fair enough, everyone likes a few cocktails on the beach, but it’s the dangers associated with this drinking that prove worrying. For instance, 11.6% of those visiting Majorca were involved in a fight, and just over a quarter in both destinations had sex, with a third of individuals not using a condom. Another study with British, German and Spanish holidaymakers in the Balearics supported the finding that heavy drinking is associated with risky sexual behaviour. So not only do you come home with a hefty hangover, but there’s also a high chance you’ll bring back a broken nose and chlamydia.

It’s not just the likes of Malia, Kavos and Ibiza that are associated with heavy drinking. A study on excessive alcohol behaviour in Cusco, Peru, found that in a sample of American, British and Spanish tourists over half of the travellers had consumed alcohol between 50% and 100% of the days they were there. Single males below the age of 26 were most likely to get drunk and this drinking was associated with drug use, sexually transmitted infections and increased illness impact. Furthermore, it’s been found that UK residents show a significant increase in the frequency of alcohol consumption when backpacking in Australia, with those drinking over 5 times a week rising from 20.7% at home, to 40.3% when away. With alcohol use in the UK already at a worrying level, this is a shocking reminder that when out of our home residence, our behaviour with alcohol seems to get worse. It’s worth noting that many of these trips abroad will not just be a week long, they could be a month, or a year. That’s a significant proportion of our year (or the whole of it!), that seems to be emitted from real life behaviour, and many hold the view that the behaviour carried out somewhere new and exciting doesn’t count (or I should I use the phrase “what happens in [insert country], stays in [insert country]”).

It’s a common attitude in young adults that the risks associated with heavy drinking are not applicable at such a young age, particularly the long-term health risks. This is a misconception that may be even further emphasised when travelling. Unfortunately we’re not invincible just because we’re young and off home soil. Although the major health risks with young people are those associated with accidents and injuries, the number of deaths in 25-34 year olds due to chronic liver disease and cirrhosis has steadily risen in England over the past 30 years. The younger we begin heavy drinking, the earlier we see chronic health problems associated with this excess behaviour. It has been suggested that beyond an average consumption of 10g/day (1 unit), our absolute risk of death from an alcohol related condition increases with increasing alcohol consumption. Therefore the more drinking occasions we have throughout our life, at both a young age and an older age, the higher our risk. It’s not only long term health implications we are vulnerable to, during intoxication our blood pressure is raised, and when the alcohol wears off, it falls below the normal level. These changes can increase the likelihood of strokes; therefore showing the effect bingeing can have on the heart.  

This indicates alcohol related harm is still relevant when we are young, and we may be particularly at risk when we are away, but research is sparse and little information is available on British holidaymakers’ alcohol consumption. For researchers, it’s important to note that when looking at long term alcohol consumption, much self-report data will not take into account the amount that is consumed on holiday, and furthermore on special occasions such as birthdays, Christmas, weddings. These are times when our attitudes and behaviour may be similar to when travelling. A substantial proportion of the year drinking may be unaccounted for, and this is supported by recent data showing that self-reported consumption by the UK population and alcohol sales do not match up.

Obviously the last thing I want to do is ruin any fun, and we all want to enjoy ourselves when we’re relaxing abroad, but there are things we could do to reduce the dangers. One option is travelling to a country that doesn’t centre around drinking, when I went to Morocco last year I hardly drank a drop (mostly due to the fact we couldn’t find it anywhere), and it was just as enjoyable as the holidays where I have spent the majority of my time in a bar. In fact, it was better as I remembered every last detail; the drunken photos weren’t the only reminder. But if we are going somewhere we know involves local shots and fishbowls, it’s important to be aware of the potential risks associated with alcohol and measures that can be taken to reduce the risks. Current media attention is attempting to increase our awareness of these dangers and has focused on some of the serious issues surrounding our excessive and carefree attitude. A recent example is “Old Before Our Time”, a documentary on chronic conditions in young people caused by excess drinking at an early age. It’s a hard hitting and eye opening reminder that young people are not immune to the damage alcohol can do. So I return to the phrase “YOLO”, you only live once, surely that’s even more the reason not to ruin it with excessive drinking?  

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