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November 03, 2022

Among young adults, 1 in 5 deaths is caused by excessive alcohol use, study shows

Here's how to recognize – and confront – someone with a problem

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Alcohol excessive drinking Source/Image licensed from Ingram Image

Excessive drinking can lead to serious health complications including liver disease and increased risks for stroke, heart disease and cancers. It can also lead to depression, anxiety and psychosis.

Having a few beers or glasses of wine while out with friends or drinking at home to unwind from a busy day are common experiences in the U.S. 

But drinking too much can lead to serious health complications and increase the risk of injury. Alcohol-related deaths are among the leading causes of preventable deaths. 

A new study estimates that 1 in 5 deaths among people ages 20-49 is caused by excessive alcohol use. That includes deaths caused by vehicle crashes, alcohol poisoning and other health complications, like liver disease. Researchers found that alcohol-related deaths have been on the rise. 

David Jernigan, a professor of health law, policy and management at Boston University, told CNN that the study's estimates are "conservative."

"It doesn't get anywhere near the attention that it should," said Jernigan, who was not part of the study. "The bottom line is (researchers) continue to show that excessive alcohol use is a big problem in the U.S."

The study, which looked at data from 2015 to 2019, does not reflect the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. But other reports have suggested that many people started drinking more during the lockdowns. According to one analysis, alcohol consumption rose 14% among adults over age 30 in the early days of pandemic. 

And Americans who binge drink – 1 in 6, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – are consuming even more alcohol, research shows. Binge drinking – consuming four or more drinks on one occasion for women and five or more for men – is responsible for 40% of alcohol-related deaths. 

How to recognize a drinking problem

People who excessively drink often may suffer from alcohol use disorder, a condition that includes both alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence. People with this disorder have a physical and psychological dependence on alcohol.

Excessive drinking can lead to serious health complications including liver disease and increased risks for stroke, heart disease and cancers. It can affect one's mental health, leading to depression, anxiety and psychosis. Alcohol use also can increase the risk of car crashes and injuries.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that more than 14 million adults have alcohol use disorder, and 1 in 10 children live in a home with a parent who excessively drinks. Research has shown that drinking alone as a teenager or young adult – especially among females – leads to even more alcohol problems as an adult.

But how do you know if your drinking habits, or those of a loved one, have become a problem? 

Signs include alcohol cravings, an increased tolerance for the effects of alcohol, and a loss of control – frequently drinking more than intended, with an inability to stop. 

To be diagnosed with alcohol use disorder, a person must have met at least 2 of 11 criteria within the last year. Those criteria include drinking that interferes with relationships, an inability to complete daily responsibilities, and spending considerable time obtaining, using or recovering from alcohol. 

Talking to a loved one about their drinking

What if a loved one that has a bad relationship with alcohol? What's the best way to confront them? 

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers some tips for starting a conversations about excessive alcohol use with loved ones.

Being prepared and remaining calm is essential, HHS says. Writing out a script and practicing it a few times ahead of time can help you stay on point. Keep the message short, positive and specific as possible. Give specific reasons for your concerns and offer your support. Work together on specific goals to reduce their drinking. They must be attainable, so start small first – like asking them to not drink two nights out the week.

Other experts emphasize the importance of picking the right time and place for the conversation. To avoid interruptions or distractions, choose a setting where you will have privacy. Also make sure that your loved one is not upset about anything else and is sober at the time of the discussion.

Try to encourage them to seek professional help and offer to help them formulate a plan to get the support they need. If your loved one is resistant to getting help, an intervention with a group of family members, friends and a professional counselor or therapist, may be necessary 

Help is available

The first step to getting help is recognizing the problem, experts say. 

When you or a loved one is ready to seek help, the next step is to get evaluated by a primary care physician. The doctor can confirm the diagnosis of alcohol use disorder and connect you to treatment options. Treatment may include counseling, medications and support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous.

For additional support, you can call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's free and confidential National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 or 1-800-487-4889 (TTY option). The helpline is open 24 hours a day throughout the year. It provides information on local treatment programs and support groups. 

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