Mar 22, 2022 - Health

Alcohol-related deaths surged during the first year of the pandemic

Percentage change of alcohol-related deaths, by age group
Data: JAMA Network; Chart: Thomas Oide/Axios

The number of deaths in the U.S. from alcohol-related causes surged during the first year of the pandemic, rising 25% from 2019 to 2020.

  • The largest spike in alcohol-related deaths was among 35- to 44-year-olds, at nearly 40%.

Between the lines: Alcohol-related deaths in 2020 outnumbered COVID-19 deaths among adults younger than 65, the New York Times notes.

  • Approximately 74,408 Americans ages 16 to 64 died of alcohol-related causes, compared to 74,075 individuals under 65 who died of COVID.

Driving the news: Pandemic-induced stress and delayed treatment contributed to the spike in deaths, according to research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

  • "Added stress is a key factor in relapse for people in recovery from alcohol and other substance use disorders," Aaron White, the report’s first author and a senior scientific adviser at the alcohol abuse institute, wrote in a statement to Axios.
  • "The available data suggest the pandemic took a toll on people in recovery, sometimes leading to relapse," he said.
  • Alcohol-related liver disease was the top underlying factor for a spike in deaths, followed by overdoses from alcohol, along with overdoses of other drugs where alcohol was involved.
  • Alcohol-related deaths increased among all age groups and genders.

The big picture: Deaths from alcohol were increasing before the pandemic, but at an average annual rate of 2.2% from 1999 to 2017, according to researchers.

  • "As with many pandemic-related outcomes, this is an exacerbation of issues that were beginning before the pandemic for many people," Katherine Keyes, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University, told the Times.
  • Total alcohol sales in the U.S. by volume increased by 2.9% in 2020 from 2019, the greatest annual increase in sales in more than 50 years, White said.

What's we're watching: "We are concerned that the numbers from 2021 could be even worse," White said.

  • "The pandemic spanned all of 2021 and the rate of deaths involving alcohol picked up where 2020 left off, so the overall numbers could be even higher."

Go deeper: America's deepening drinking habit

Go deeper