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Alcohol use disorder-related deaths spiked during COVID-19 pandemic, study finds

Researchers say younger adults suffered the highest number of deaths

Person holding glass of liquor
Photo (c) boonchai wedmakawand - Getty Images
While recent studies have highlighted how consumers’ drinking habits have changed during the COVID-19 pandemic, a new study conducted by researchers from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center further explored this area. According to their findings, deaths related to alcohol use disorder surged during the pandemic. 

“During the first few months of the pandemic, my colleagues and I saw increased numbers of patients being treated for acute alcohol use-related conditions in the intensive care unit and throughout the medical center,” said researcher Dr. Yee Hui Yeo. “We also became aware of reports from single centers of elevated alcohol use-related complications. That prompted us to think, maybe this is a significant public health crisis."

Alcohol use disorder affects longevity

For the study, the researchers analyzed mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from 2012 through 2019. They then used a predictive model that assessed what mortality rates would look like for 2020 and 2021 based on earlier figures and compared that with the mortality rates that were reported for those years. 

Ultimately, the researchers learned that deaths related to alcohol use disorder were much higher than the predicted rates in both 2020 and 2021. In 2020, alcohol use-related deaths were 25% higher than predicted; in 2021, the mortality rate was 22% higher. 

“What we found in our analysis reflects what we had been seeing anecdotally in our patients and in academic papers tracking complications like alcohol-related liver disease,” said Dr. Yeo. “We also know that alcohol use disorder is often under-reported, so actual mortality rates related to alcohol use may be even higher than reported.” 

The study showed that younger adults who were between the ages of 25 and 44 years old experienced the greatest increase in alcohol-related deaths over the course of the pandemic. While the mortality rate was highest among older adults over the course of the study, alcohol use-related deaths shot up to more than 40% in 2020 and dropped down to under 34% in 2021 for younger adults. 

The researchers hope these findings highlight the significant health risks associated with alcohol use disorder and the ways that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected consumers’ drinking. 

“In publishing this article, we want everyone, especially policymakers and physicians on the front lines, to know that during the pandemic, there is really a significant surge in alcohol use disorder-related deaths,” Dr. Yeo said. “We also want to recognize that patients who die from alcohol use disorder-related causes tend to have social determinants of health, like lower socioeconomic status, that can make it harder for them to access health care and help. Finally, we want to make sure that patients who do seek treatment for alcohol or substance use have access to follow-up care to prevent secondary complications.” 

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