WASHINGTON (CN) – As alcohol abuse becomes as common among women as men, a new federally backed study found that older female drinkers drove a 47 percent surge in the number of alcohol-related visits to hospital emergency rooms.
“It’s almost a 50 percent increase; this is very large,” said Aaron White, a senior scientific adviser to the director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “If it keeps going this way, it’s a real problem.”
White spoke over the phone Tuesday after a study he led in a new issue of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.
Studying data from the country’s largest emergency-department database, White’s team observed that the number of people hospitalized for alcohol misuse surged between 2009 and 2014 from about 3 million to 5 million.
That’s just 3 percent of the 175 million people over the age of 12 who drink alcohol, but White emphasized that the number is still concerning
“It’s still 9.5 visits per minute,” White said. That’s almost 14,000 visits per day.”
In addition to short-term problems like alcohol poisoning, the issues that led caused hospitals to see an average annual increase of 210,000 alcohol-related visits included side effects of long-term drinking such as alcohol withdrawal and cirrhosis of the liver.
“These increases far outpaced changes in the number and rate of ED visits for any cause during the years studied,” the U.S. National Institutes of Health reported in a statement on the study.
White’s team found that women and men between the ages of 45 and 54 accounted for the highest rates of ER visits related to acute misuse of alcohol.
The age groups 45 to 54 and 55 to 64 meanwhile saw the largest increases when it came to acute alcohol misuse.
For ER visits related to chronic misuse of alcohol, the steepest increased occurred in 25-year-olds to 34-year-olds and 55-year-olds to 64-year-olds.
Rates were highest among the latter group and among adults 45 to 54.
Men still outnumber women when it comes to ER visits related to alcohol misuse, but the rate of female visits increased more among females than males over the study period: 5.3 percent versus 4 percent annually.
Over the same period, the rate of chronic alcohol misuse-related visits for females than males was 6.9 percent versus 4.5 percent.
White emphasized that women’s drinking habits have become more similar to those of men over the years.
“I think the biggest increases are … in the baby-boomer cohort, 55 and older,” White said over the phone.
He noted in the study that this trend is cause for alarm because women appear to be more susceptible than men “to some of the detrimental health effects of alcohol.”
Despite the apparent surge in alcohol-related ER visits, the study also saw that the number of people who drank alcohol and the amount they drink remained “about the same.”
“We suspect the increase in ED visits is related to an increase in the intensity of alcohol use among a subset of drinkers,” White said, using an abbreviation for emergency department.
Binge drinking has been on the decline among young teens, and ER data bore this out. White’s team found that visits related to acute alcohol misuse decreased significantly between 2006 and 2014 for the age group 12 to 17.
“This fits with what we know,” said White. “There’s been a big decrease in binge drinking over the last 20 years. We’d like to think this is all due to our prevention efforts- parent teen communication around alcohol; policies that limit alcohol access to teens … but we don’t really know exactly why it’s decreasing.”
One factor that cannot be ignored is that teens are experiencing a decline in in-person socialization.
“If you’re not spending time together, it decreases times to drink,” said White. “But the levels of anxieties and depression has gone up, probably from the lack of socialization. Communicating with one another digitally is an odd form – it’s not something our species has seen until now. Oddly teens are drinking less but they’re more anxious and depressed probably related to decreased face-to-face socialization.”
George Koob, who is director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, noted in a statement that alcohol misuse has a significant burden on the U.S. health care system.