Tthe number of Americans killed by alcohol increased by 26% in the first year of the pandemic, according to data published by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) on November 4. This sharp rise occurred from the beginning of 2019 to the end of 2020, jumping from about 10.4 deaths per 100,000 people to 13.1 deaths. This is the largest annual increase in at least two decades.
The increase was largely due to alcoholic liver disease, which increased by 23% over the year, and mental and behavioral disorders due to alcohol use (such as deaths from intoxication, addiction or psychotic disorder), which were increased by 33%. The overall increase “is something we see in almost everyone of drinking age, except for men 85 and older,” said study co-author Marian Rose Spencer of NCHS.
Although the authors of the new report did not speculate on the social forces driving the increase, other experts who study alcohol consumption say that increasing alcohol abuse has been an alarming trend and a serious concern for years. “The pandemic just added fuel to the fire,” said Aaron White, senior science adviser to the director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, who was not involved in the study.
One big driver is that Americans are simply drinking more alcohol. From 1999 to 2019 alcohol consumption has increased by about 10%. He is a likely collaborator drop in price of alcohol, especially since alcohol taxes have become less common, said Kathryn Keyes, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health who has studied alcohol consumption across generations. (Keyes was not involved in the NCHS study.)
In the past, men of all ages consumed more alcohol and died more often from alcohol-related causes than women, but for about a decade women have been closing the gap. More than men, women are responsible for the recent increase in alcohol consumption reflected in the new study. Alcohol consumption by men has remained largely stable over the past two decades, but has increased among women during that time, according to research by White, published in 2020; between 2000 and 2016, the number of women who drink alcohol increased by 14% and only by 0.5% among men. According to a Nov. 4 federal study, although more men continue to die from alcohol-related deaths, the gender gap is narrowing: While 3.6 times more men than women died from such deaths in 2000, 2 ,6 times more in 2020.
Especially in middle age, Keyes says, “we’re seeing consistent and strong increases in binge drinking, especially among women.” Over the past decade at least, young people have started drinking less, but people between the ages of 30 and 55 have increased the amount, what they drink, Keyes says.
The pandemic has reinforced many of these trends and changed drinking habits. Sale of alcohol jump in the US at the start of the COVID-19 lockdown in at least the first months of 2021, and more people drank at home, alone. White speculates that people may have ingested more to pass the time during isolation or because they spent more time at home, in close proximity to the refrigerator and away from the office.
Much of the problem drinking is also due to what White calls the “dark side of substance use”: drinking not to have fun but to “reduce discomfort,” says White. For many people, the pandemic probably triggered that impulse, he says. “Everyone suffered during the pandemic,” he says. “There’s just a national rise in anxiety, anxiety, and fear. We tend to look for ways to cope when we’re uncomfortable, and one of them is alcohol.
Keyes and White say it’s important to recognize alcohol as a public health risk. They say it’s critical to reach out to people who need help — especially, White says, by screening people for problem drinking at doctor visits. It’s also essential that people know it’s okay to talk about substance use problems, Keyes says, and that there are evidence-based treatments available. including medications and outpatient treatmentthis may help.
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