Excessive drinking is increasingly killing middle-aged adults — a trend that had been brewing for nearly two decades before it ramped up at an alarming pace when the coronavirus pandemic began.
Alcohol-related deaths rose by 26% from 2019 to 2020, a new report published Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds.
The increase was even sharper among women ages 35 to 44, going up by 42% from 2019 to 2020.
The dramatic one-year rise comes after a long period of relatively steady increases in such deaths. From 2000 through 2018, age-adjusted alcohol-related deaths rose yearly, but never at a rate higher than 7%.
But when the pandemic hit, many people greatly increased their drinking.
The new research "unmasks the fact that we have a vulnerable population that was also living through the Covid-19 pandemic," said Dr. Kristopher Kast, the clinical director of the Addiction Consult Service at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.
"With that increased rate" of drinking, Kast said, "we saw this increase in mortality."
The new report, from the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics, found that the rate of alcohol-related deaths rose from 10.4 per 100,000 people in 2019 to 13.1 per 100,000 in 2020.
Overall, alcohol-related death rates are higher among men than women; in 2020, there were 19.2 deaths per 100,000 men, compared with 7.5 per 100,000 women.
Liver disease was the leading cause of alcohol-related deaths in the new report, followed by mental and behavioral health disorders, such as withdrawal.
Deaths from acute pancreatitis — an inflammatory pancreas condition — were also notable. The condition can occur with sudden changes in drinking, especially in people with other, underlying health problems, Kast said.
While the overall rates of alcohol-related pancreatitis deaths were quite low (from 0.1 per 100,000 people in 2019 to 0.2 per 100,000 in 2020), they do represent a doubling in a single year.
The researchers found that alcohol-related deaths were most common among middle-aged adults. The highest death rates were among men and women ages 55 through 64.
But there were significant gender differences. Women accounted for the biggest one-year jump in death rates. Overall, alcohol deaths among women rose by 27% from 2019 to 2020.
The largest increase was among women ages 35 to 44, from 7.2 deaths per 100,000 in 2019 to 10.2 per 100,000 in 2020 — an increase of 42%.
The second largest was among women ages 25 to 34 — a 34% rise — although the overall rates were low: 2.9 deaths per 100,000 in 2019, up to 3.9 per 100,000 in 2020.
The data reflects a worrisome issue affecting women, particularly mothers who took on extra child care responsibilities at home when schools went into lockdown.
The report Friday is one of several published this week showing the toll of drinking. A study CDC researchers published Tuesday in the journal JAMA Network Open pinned the blame on alcohol in at least 1 in 5 deaths in adults through age 49 from 2015 to 2019. The causes of such deaths included liver disease, but also drunk driving deaths and alcohol poisonings.
A second report, published Thursday by the CDC, found that alcohol has killed people at higher rates in rural areas than in cities since at least 2006.