We thought there was more alcohol use during the pandemic with all those COVID-tinis and weeks of isolation. But a new government report puts an exact number to alcohol-related deaths during COVID, and it’s not good.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show the rate of alcohol-induced deaths jumped 26% from 2019 to 2020. Strikingly, it took the previous 10 years to see a similar increase.
Death rates from alcohol, according to the CDC report, increased with age in both males and females up to age 64. However, the largest increase for men and women was in those under 45.
“Continuous and recurrent exposure to alcohol wears our bodies down and leads to organ damage over time, so seeing the highest death rates in the 55- to 64-year-old range is not surprising,” said J. Craig Allen, MD, vice president of addiction services for Hartford HealthCare and medical director of Rushford, part of the system’s Behavioral Health Network.
“What is surprising is the large increase in death rates for age groups under 45. This indicates that the way younger people are consuming alcohol is impacting their physical health a decade earlier than in the past,” he added.
> Worried about your or a loved one’s alcohol use? Medication-assisted treatment can help.
Alcohol-fueled causes of death
When drilling down into the numbers, the CDC showed that deaths due to:
- alcohol-induced acute pancreatitis increased 50%
- mental and behavioral disorders due to alcohol use jumped 33%
- chronic liver disease rose 23%
“These factors all connect,” Dr. Allen explained. “We know the pandemic increased stress and anxiety, and studies have shown that people who increased their drinking the most during that time did it to cope with stress. Using alcohol to manage stress leads to a much higher risk of developing alcohol use disorder. Ongoing use of alcohol can lead to the development of new or worsening of pre-existing psychiatric disorders.”
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Turning numbers around
Increased awareness of the connection between alcohol, mental health and medical conditions can help shift the numbers downward again, Dr. Allen said.
“Alcohol has a role directly or as a contributing factor in more than 140,000 deaths every year,” he explained. “The social and cultural acceptability of alcohol can be a blinder for the general public and even health care providers. Assessment, education and when necessary intervention and treatment are essential to change some of these outcomes.”
It is also very important to identify co-occurring psychiatric and medical disorders to secure the best and most effective treatment approach, he added.
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