August 01, 2023
Deaths linked to excessive alcohol consumption have been steadily climbing for most of the last two decades, new research shows. But health experts are particularly alarmed that, in recent years, women have begun to drink themselves to death at higher rates than men.
The study examined 605,948 alcohol-related deaths from 1999 through 2020. Though men were nearly three times more likely to die of alcohol poisoning, liver disease, gastritis and other conditions tied to excessive drinking during that period, women began to close that gap in recent years.
Between 2018 and 2020, the alcohol-related death rate increased by 14.7% among women, and 12.5% among men, researchers found. And from 2012 to 2020, alcohol-related deaths among women 65 and older increased by 6.7% per year, compared to 5.2% among men in that age range.
"It's really concerning," lead researcher Dr. Ibraheem Karaye, a population health professor at Hofstra University, told U.S. News & World Report.
Until 2007, the alcohol-related death rate among women increased by about 1% annually, the study found. It rose by about 4.3% each year from 2007 to 2018. Then it surged even more.
The study, which relied on data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, did not examine the cause of these increases. But the researchers behind the study pointed to the changing patterns of alcohol consumption among women. Nearly half of adult women report drinking within the last 30 days, other research shows. And women in their teens and early 20s report drinking and getting drunk at higher rates than their male peers.
The motivation for drinking could play a major role in understanding the rise in alcohol-related conditions and deaths, researchers said. Coping with stress, for example, is one of the most common motivations for alcohol misuse among men and women, according to previous research.
"There's an interaction with mental health that has been more exposed during the pandemic," George F. Koob, direct of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, told CNN last year. "Women are twice and likely as men to experience anxiety and depression, and the stresses of the pandemic likely hit hard."
Some physiological differences between men and women also may be at play, researchers said. Women tend to have a higher percentage of body fat and a lower percentage of body water, which can result in higher blood-alcohol concentrations. Women also are not able to metabolize alcohol as quickly as men.
"When we digest alcohol, it's digested with an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase," Dr. Darien Sutton, an emergency medical physician, told Good Morning America on Monday. "Women typically have fewer amounts of this enzyme, therefore exposing them to more toxic effects and negative long-term effects. I'm talking about liver disease, pancreatitis, heart failure and also beyond that, lower rates of fertility, earlier menopause and increased rates of colon cancer and breast cancer."
Long-term effects of excessive alcohol use include high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, digestive problems, higher risk of developing cancer, weakening of the immune system, memory problems, social problems and alcohol use disorder. And in the short-term, drinking increases the risk of injuries, violence, risky sexual behaviors and, among pregnant women, miscarriage or stillbirth.
There are several warning signs of excessive drinking. For women, excessive drinking is defined as having more than four drinks in one sitting. The warning signs include not being able to limit drinking, making unsuccessful attempts to cut down on drinking, spending a lot of time recovering from alcohol use and experiencing withdrawal symptoms.
People who believe they may have a drinking problem are advised to consult a health care provider. The National Drug and Alcohol Helpline at (800) 662-4357 provides information about possible treatment programs and can connect people with specialists to help overcome excessive drinking.