Published: Sat, August 12, 2017
Health | By Jay Jacobs

Americans are drinking a lot - and it's scaring researchers

Americans are drinking a lot - and it's scaring researchers

"If we ignore these problems, they will come back to us at much higher costs through emergency department visits, impaired children who are likely to need care for many years for preventable problems, and higher costs for jails and prisons that are the last resort for help for many", said UCSD psychiatrist Mark Schuckit in an editorial accompanying the study. Because people tend to under-report consumption, especially as the amount of alcohol consumed increases, it's possible consumption levels could be even higher than found in this study.

The study, which was conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and reported by Time, compared two groups of people from the years 2001-2002 and then 2012-2013.

While the study's findings are alarming, a different federal survey, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), has shown that alcohol use disorder rates are lower and falling, rather than rising, since 2002. The study also classified high-risk drinking as exceeding those daily drinking limits at least once a week in the previous year.

Increases in alcohol abuse were greatest among women, older adults, racial/ethnic minorities, and individuals with lower educational level and family income. The proportion Americans developing alcohol dependence, it said could be considered a "public health crisis".

If you find yourself reaching for a glass of rosé or a dirty martini after the end of a long work-week (or workday), you're definitely not alone.

But high-risk and problem drinking increased far more dramatically.

The study does not explain why alcohol drinking and abuse increased, but researchers suggest some explanations could include changing social norms and alcohol consumption as a coping device. High-risk drinking grew from 9.7 percent to 12.6 percent. Alcohol use can also put older adults at a higher risk for a fall and for chronic diseases that can be caused by alcohol use. These face-to-face interviews queried adults 18 years and older on their drinking habits in the past 12 months. The disorder is determined by such symptoms as alcohol interfering with a person's home or work life, suffering withdrawal symptoms after abstaining from alcohol and being unable to cut down on or stop drinking, among others. The jump for adults 65 and older was 106.7 percent, 83.7 percent for women, 51.9 percent for Hispanics and 92.8 percent for blacks.

Though the study's authors note that their findings have some limitations - they did not survey anyone from homeless or incarcerated populations, for instance, which could mean they potentially underestimated the overall rates of alcohol use - the study notes that its findings are in line with other similar research.

Indeed, the study's findings are bolstered by the fact that deaths from a number of these conditions, particularly alcohol-related cirrhosis and hypertension, have risen concurrently over the study period.

If the more sensitive data used in the current study is indeed more accurate, there's one final caveat to note: the study's data only go through 2013.

Past studies have found that alcohol use in the United States declined or remained stable between the 1970s and early 1990s. "If something's cheaper, we buy more", says Jürgen Rehm, an epidemiologist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. In Canada, there is a minimum price for alcohol, and when that price has gone up, health problems and hospitalizations related to alcohol have gone down, he says. "Clearly, alcohol does not get the necessary attention given the problems it causes", says Rehm. In the '90s, however, alcohol consumption increased - the percentage of people who drank at all increased by almost half, while high-risk and disordered drinking increased by about 20 percent and 12 percent, respectively.

M. Schuckit. Remarkable increases in alcohol use disorders.

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