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Increase in alcohol-related deaths over past 2 decades in U.S. is jarring

What is the problem stemming from, how can we change it?

A man lays his head on a table while holding a bottle in his hand.
A man lays his head on a table while holding a bottle in his hand.

To look at the numbers of alcohol-related deaths in the United States over the past 18 years, it can be quite jarring -- and that number is increasing at an alarming rate, experts say.

In 2017, there were 72,558 alcohol-associated deaths. Not even 20 years earlier, in 1999, the total deaths related to alcohol were 35,914. Those numbers are according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

Within that 18-year period, the Institute reported, nearly 1 million people died of alcohol-related causes.

Of the deaths associated with alcohol between 1999 and 2017, there was an increase in the rate of death of women by 85%, as compared to men at 35%.


What are people drinking?

If the numbers above don’t catch you off guard, perhaps these will: the top 10% of drinking American adults consume an average of 74 drinks per week. That’s more than 10 drinks per day.

Those statistics are according to calculations from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions, which was examined in “Paying the Tab,” by Philip J. Cook.

Think about that — 10 drinks each day. The Washington Post broke it down into what that looks like in a week: more than 4.5 750mL bottles of Jack Daniels and 18 bottles of wine, OR three 24-can cases of beer — in just one week.

“I agree that it’s hard to imagine, consuming 10 drinks a day,” Cook told the Washington Post. But, “there are a remarkable number of people who drink a couple of six packs a day, or a pint of whiskey.”


Where is the problem coming from?

According to NIAAA, there are an estimated 16 million people in the United States who have Alcohol Use Disorder: a chronic relapsing brain disease characterized by compulsive alcohol use, loss of control over alcohol intake and a negative emotional state when not using. Experts will diagnose someone with AUD once a drinking problem becomes severe.

Have you ever wondered if you or someone you know might have a problem with alcohol?

If you answered yes to any of the above questions, NIAAA suggests there may already be cause for concern. But ultimately, a health professional would need to conduct a formal assessment of your symptoms to see if AUD or any other problems are present.

What’s the damage?

When you drink excessively, you could be harming your body by possibly creating:

  • Kidney damage.
  • Interference with the brain’s communication pathways.
  • Likeliness of stroke.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Arrhythmias (irregular heart beat).
  • Cardiomyopathy (stretching a drooping of the heart muscle).
  • Liver problems, such as fibrosis, cirrhosis, alcohol hepatitis and/or fatty liver.
  • Pancreatitis.
  • Several types of cancer that include, but are not limited to, head and neck, esophageal, liver, breast and colorectal.
  • Weakening of the immune system.
  • Higher likeliness of contracting diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis than people who do not drink too much

NIAAA Director Dr. George Koob said, "The current findings suggest that alcohol-related deaths involving injuries, overdoses and chronic diseases are increasing across a wide swath of the population. The report is a wake-up call to the growing threat alcohol poses to public health.”

He added that alcohol’s contribution to a person’s death often fails to make it onto a death certificate. Because of that, better surveillance of alcohol involvement in mortality is essential to better understand and address the impact of alcohol on public health.

Getting help

Having said that, if alcohol has become a problem -- diagnosed or not -- there are options for treatment. And know that it doesn’t necessarily have to be a 12-step program or an in-patient rehab.

The first step would be to start with a primary care doctor, according to NIAAA. A doctor can first evaluate if a person’s drinking pattern is risky, then craft a treatment plan and assess if medications might be necessary.

Support groups

You’ve probably heard of Alcoholics Anonymous, also known as AA. This route can provide peer support for anyone who is trying to quit or cut back on drinking.

Behavioral treatments

Through counseling, health professionals aim to change drinking behavior. According to NIAAA, studies have shows this route can be beneficial.

Medications

There are now currently three medications in the United States that have been approved and can help people stop or reduce their drinking and prevent relapse. They must be prescribed by a primary physician.

Click here to learn more about alcohol’s effect on the United States.


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