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Alcohol-induced deaths soared during pandemic

Even before Covid-19 gripped the nation, Americans were drinking more than ever and dying more as a result.

ATLANTA (CN) — The rate of alcohol-induced deaths in the U.S. dramatically increased during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a study released Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Ranging from alcohol poisoning to liver or pancreas failure and withdrawal, the CDC report examined more than a dozen causes of deaths directly caused by drinking and blamed for the deaths of more than 52,000 Americans last year.

After rising about 7% or less for nearly 20 years, the rate of alcohol-induced deaths in the U.S. shot up 26% from 2019 to 2020, from a rate of 10.4 deaths per 100,000 people to 13.1.

While deaths attributed to alcohol consumption have been gradually rising over the past two decades, the current rate of about 13 deaths per 100,000 Americans each year is the highest in at least 40 years, according to the study's lead author, Merianne Spencer.

For both men and women, rates of alcohol-induced deaths rose from 2019 to 2020 across almost all age groups but were highest for those between 55 and 64 years old. However, such deaths for this age group have been on the rise even before the pandemic, as they only increased by 20% compared to 2019.

People over the age of 50 were also more likely to become severely ill and require more intensive care if infected with Covid-19 during the pandemic, according to the CDC.

Among women in the study, those between the ages of 35 and 44 saw the largest percentage increase – 42% – in death rates between 2019 and 2020, followed by a 34% increase for women ages 25 to 34 and a 26% increase for the 65 to 74 age group.

Rates for men of nearly all age groups increased significantly and were found to be two to four times higher than those for women, except for men 85 years and older, who saw a slight decline in deaths from an average of 13.2 people per 100,000 to 12.8.

The CDC has said that alcohol-induced deaths affect more men than women because they are more likely to drink excessively and more likely to take other risks while drinking that further increase their risk of illness, injury or death, such as misusing substances, driving without a seatbelt or having multiple sex partners.

While deaths were overall the lowest for men and women under 25, with no increase in rates for women in this age group from 2019 to 2020, the data showed an alarming spike in rates for young men during this time. Men ages 25 and younger experienced the largest spike, with a 50% higher rate than previous years. But deaths also rose at nearly the same rate for men up to age 44.

The study found that alcoholic liver disease was the most common underlying cause of all alcohol-induced deaths during the pandemic, followed by mental and behavioral disorders due to use of alcohol such as acute intoxication, harmful use and withdrawl.

Acute pancreatitis, which is primarily caused by chronic alcohol consumption, experienced the highest increase in related deaths at 50%.

The surge in alcohol-induced deaths during the pandemic was most likely due to stress, which causes people to be more likely to consume and misuse alcohol, according to research from the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

In a similar analysis in 2020, researchers found most participants reported they began to drink more because of increased stress, increased availability of alcohol and/or boredom during the pandemic.

"Considering the scale of its consequences and the huge stress-related burden, Covid-19 pandemic can be considered as a mass trauma, which can lead to psychological problems, health behavior changes, and addictive issues, including alcohol consumption," researchers wrote in another study published last year in the journal Toxicology Reports.

The research found that similar to the Covid-19 pandemic, mass crisis situations like 9/11, epidemic outbreaks such as SARS in 2003 or economic crises such as 2008's Great Recession were also associated with increases in alcohol use, specifically related to anxiety and depressive symptoms.

Many people also experienced greater difficulty in accessing medical care during the midst of the pandemic, which could be another important factor in the increase in alcohol-induced death.

While the CDC's report excluded conditions partially attributable to alcohol use – such as heart disease, strokes, suicides, homicides and newborn deaths from maternal drinking – another study published earlier this week in JAMA Network Open examined a wider range of such deaths.

Their study found that as many as 1 in 8 deaths among U.S. adults ages 20 to 64 between 2015 and 2019 were alcohol-related.

New Mexico had the highest percentage of alcohol-related deaths at 22%, while Mississippi had the lowest at 9%.

Alcohol is involved in more homicides across the U.S. compared to other substances, like heroin and cocaine, according to Recovery Worldwide's Alcohol Rehab Guide, and about 40% of convicted murderers had used alcohol before or during the crime.

About one-third of suicides have also been linked to alcohol consumption, and in 2020 alone, 45,855 Americans claimed their own lives.

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