Alcohol-related deaths in the US have risen during the Covid-19 pandemic, CDC data show
Alcohol-related deaths in the United States have increased during the Covid-19 pandemic, killing more than 49,000 people in 2020. data the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced on Friday.
The alcohol-related death rate has been rising steadily in recent decades, but jumped by 26% between 2019 and 2020 – making almost the same rise in one year as in the previous decade. In 2020, alcohol caused 13 deaths for every 100,000 people, up from 10.4 deaths for every 100,000 people in 2019.
“What is a bigger word than crisis?” said Marvin Ventrell, chief executive officer of the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers. “What was already a crisis exploded.”
Alcoholic liver disease was the root cause of more than half of alcohol-related deaths in 2020, followed by mental and behavioral disorders due to alcohol use. This analysis does not include deaths where alcohol use may have directly contributed, but was not the sole factor.
Including other deaths that can be attributed to, but not directly caused by, excessive alcohol use — such as cancer, heart disease and unintentional injuries like car accidents — nearly triples the number of alcohol-related deaths, according to CDC. This would put the number of alcohol-related deaths far above the number of drug overdose deaths, which reached rrecord levels during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Americans drank more during the Covid-19 pandemic, which experts say has created an environment ripe for alcohol abuse.
“We know that in major traumatic events for a population—like 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina—people historically start drinking more. The pandemic, as we all know, is a major stressor to our lives,” George F. Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
“What we’ve found in a number of small studies is that about 25% of the population has increased drinking and that these are people who have been drinking to cope with stress. And many people who drink to cope with stress inevitably have an alcohol use disorder.”
Wide social acceptance and easy availability make alcohol an easy option for dealing with stress — and easy to miss problematic use, experts say.
“If a substance is harmful, the more access to that substance, the more harm it will create. What is the most affordable substance? Alcohol. And what is the substance with the least social stigma in relation to its use? Alcohol,” Ventrell said.
“You could say ‘Joe drinks a little too much, but that’s just Joe.’ But no one says, ‘Joe uses a little too much meth, but he’s a good father.'”
And while experts say the effects of alcohol abuse may be less immediate than other drugs, they are no less devastating.
“Alcohol really has an insidious course, meaning it causes wear and tear on your body over a long period of time,” said Dr. James Latronica, a family medicine physician with addiction treatment services at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Western Psychiatric Hospital.
According to the CDC, middle-aged men were most likely to die from excessive alcohol use in 2020. The death rate was highest for men aged 55 to 64 – there were almost 60 deaths for every 100,000 people in this age group, more than four times the overall rate. Death rates for women were also the highest for that age group, but three times lower than for men.
But in the first year of the pandemic, the death rate rose most among younger men under 45, and the biggest increase among women was among those aged 25 to 44 – further evidence that alcohol is causing health problems for younger groups than before. Another study published earlier this week found that in the five years before the Covid-19 pandemic, 1 in 5 deaths of US adults aged 20-49 either from excessive drinking.
At every age, men were at least twice as likely to die from alcohol-related causes as women, but the overall gap narrowed in 2020.
Experts attribute part of this shift to the pandemic.
“There is an interaction with mental health that has been more exposed during the pandemic,” Koob said. Women are twice as likely as men to experience anxiety and depression, and the stresses of the pandemic are likely to take an added toll.
“Women are also more susceptible to the pathological effects of alcohol, from liver disease to some mental health interactions,” he said.
Because of the compounding effects of excessive alcohol abuse, experts say it is likely that the effects of the pandemic will continue to cause increased alcohol-related deaths for years to come.
But better access to treatment can mitigate the loss; Screening rates have improved, experts say, but fewer than one in 10 people with alcohol use disorders get the treatment they need.
“With these studies, some people might worry that their relationship with alcohol is unhealthy,” Latronica said. Alcohol can cause a lot of problems, he said, but it’s much easier to address them when you talk about them — and that can start with a primary care visit.
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