Excessive Alcohol Use Caused 1 in 5 U.S. Deaths Between 2015-2019

Written by Editorial Team

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In the 5 years before the U.S. was hit by the coronavirus pandemic, 1 in 5 adults, aged 20 to 49 years, died from excessive alcohol use, which includes binge drinking (too much alcohol in a short space of time) and heavy drinking (too much alcohol over a sustained length of time).

Drinking too much alcohol was responsible for the deaths of more than 140,000 people every year during those 5 years – far more than the record number of drug overdoses seen in 2021.

In fact, 140,000 deaths per year equates to 380 deaths every single day.

In addition to this, according to the CDC’s NCHS Data Brief No. 448, published in the same month, during the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, deaths from excessive drinking increased by 26% from 2019 (10.4 per 100,000 standard population) to 2020 (13.1).

Interestingly, this percentage increase is very similar to the 30% rise seen in fatal drug overdoses across the U.S.

If a substance is harmful, the greater the access there is to that substance, the more harm it will create.
What is the most accessible substance? Alcohol.
And what is the substance with the least social stigma relative to using it?

– Marvin Ventrell, CEO, National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers (NAATP)

According to the CDC, every year, deaths from excessive drinking:

  • Shortened the lives of those who died by an average of 26 years – a total of nearly 3.6 million years of potential life lost.
  • Usually involved male adults over 35.
  • Were mostly due to the health effects from drinking too much over time, such as various types of cancer, liver disease, and heart disease.
  • More than half of the years of potential life lost were caused by binge drinking, from causes such as motor vehicle crashes, poisonings involving substances in addition to alcohol, and suicides.

Excessive drinking is one of the leading causes of preventable death in the U.S., and it is costly, too, eg. $249 billion in 2010 (the most recent year of available data).


What is “Excessive Alcohol Use”?

The term “excessive alcohol use” is defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) as including:

  • Binge drinking, defined as consuming 4 or more drinks on an occasion for a woman or 5 or more drinks on an occasion for a man
  • Heavy drinking, defined as 8 or more drinks per week for a woman or 15 or more drinks per week for a man, and
  • Any alcohol use by pregnant women or anyone younger than 21

The “Corona Effect”: Rising Alcohol Use & Abuse

The coronavirus pandemic changed many aspects of normal American life, disrupting many of the elements of our society we took for granted, and it continues to be an ever-present in our lives today.

During the initial year and half of the coronavirus’s presence in the U.S., levels of stress, anxiety and depression in both adults and children rose dramatically across the nation. One the most direct responses to these inescapable and negative feelings for adults was to turn to alcohol use.

For regular alcohol drinkers, this simply meant drinking more than usual.

As a result, alcohol sales literally went through the roof across the U.S. – hitting record sales never seen before in many U.S. states.

For example, in Pennsylvania, the state’s Liquor Control Board announced massive increases in online alcohol purchases, ie. unit alcohol sales increased by 851%, and dollar alcohol sales increased by 436%.

In one particular medical research study, published in December, 2020 – “Alcohol Consumption During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Cross-Sectional Survey of U.S. Adults” – it was found that nearly two-thirds of the participants reported that their drinking had increased in 2020 when compared with their drinking pre-pandemic.

Study participants cited a number of reasons for this, including:

  • Increased stress and anxiety
  • Ease of online alcohol purchase, and
  • Sheer boredom

This increase in drinking, particularly among people with anxiety and depression, is consistent with concerns that the pandemic may be triggering an epidemic of problematic alcohol use.”

– Ariadna Capasso, NYU School of Global Public Health

According to the CDC’s NCHS Data Brief No. 448, these across-the-board increases in alcohol use and abuse during the first year of the coronavirus pandemic directly resulted in:

  • From 2019 to 2020, the age-adjusted rate of alcohol-induced deaths increased by 26% – similar to the 30% rise seen in fatal drug overdoses across the U.S.
  • The rate of alcohol-induced deaths was highest for those aged 55–64 for both males and females in 2020
  • Among females, those aged 35-44 had the largest percentage increase in death rates from 2019 to 2020
  • Among males, the largest percentage increases in death rates from 2019 to 2020 were for age groups under 45
  • Alcoholic liver disease was the most frequent underlying cause for alcohol-induced deaths

The Chronic Health Effects of Excessive Alcohol Use

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According to Dr. James Latronica, MD., at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Western Psychiatric Hospital, “Alcohol really has an insidious course, meaning that it produces wear and tear on your body over a long time.”

The regular and excessive use of alcohol over a sustained number of years can lead to a wide range of medical conditions, including chronic diseases, including alcohol use disorder (AUD), and other serious health issues, such as problems with learning, memory, and mental health.

Here are some of the major chronic diseases and other serious medical conditions which can result from excessive alcohol use over time.

Excessive Alcohol Use

Major Chronic Diseases & Other Medical Conditions

1. High Blood Pressure, Heart Disease & Stroke


Binge drinking and heavy drinking can cause heart disease, including cardiomyopathy (disease of the heart muscle), as well as an irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, and even a stroke.
However, these serious medical conditions are not just limited to older people.
According to a study by the Seoul National University Hospital, moderate-to-heavy drinking is associated with a 3-fold increased risk for hemorrhagic stroke in young adults (20-39 years), compared to non-drinkers.


2. Alcohol-Related Liver Disease

Excessive alcohol use takes a serious toll on the liver.
Over time, this can lead to fatty liver disease (steatosis), hepatitis, fibrosis and cirrhosis.
Images: Fatty liver disease (right);
Cirrhosis of the liver (far right)

Fatty Liver Disease
Liver C2b

3. Various Cancers

Drinking alcoholic beverages of any kind, including wine, beer, and liquor, can contribute to cancers of the mouth and throat, larynx (voice box), esophagus, colon and rectum, liver, and breast (in women).
For some cancers, even less than one drink in a day can increase your risk. However, as a rule, the less alcohol a person drinks, the lower the risk of these types of cancer.
Image: Cancer cell – Acute myeloid leukemia (far right)

Cancer Cell AML2

In addition to these and other chronic, potentially life-threatening diseases, excessive alcohol use can also lead to other serious harms and risks to your health, including:

  1. Injuries, Violence, and Poisonings
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Drinking too much alcohol significantly increases your risk of personal injury (and other people’s too), such as involvement in a motor vehicle crash, falls, drownings, and burns.

Furthermore, it increases the risk of violence, including homicide, suicide, and sexual assault. One U.S. study found that more than 40% of people who died violently had alcohol in their bloodstream.

Alcohol has also been found to contribute to poisonings and opioid and other drug overdoses.

  1. Unintended Pregnancy and Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs)

People who binge drink are more likely to have unprotected sex, and multiple sexual partners. These activities increase the risk of an unintended pregnancy, and contracting a sexually transmitted disease (STD), including HIV.

In fact, the U.S. has seen a huge increase in the number of people with an STD in recent years. According to the CDC’s “2019 Sexually Ttransmitted Disease Surveillance Report”:

  • There were 2.5 million reported cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis, the 3 most commonly reported STDs, in 2019 – the 6th consecutive year in which these infections have increased
  • Between 2015 and 2019, reportable STDs increased by nearly 30%
  • The sharpest increase was in cases of syphilis among newborns (i.e., congenital syphilis), which nearly quadrupled between 2015 and 2019.
  1. Poor Pregnancy Outcomes

Any kind of alcohol use during pregnancy will not be good for your newborn, and, if the alcohol use is regularly excessive, it can cause fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FAS). It also increases your risk of miscarriage, premature birth, stillbirth, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

The CDC Study on Excessive Alcohol Use Deaths

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The study – “Estimated Deaths Attributable to Excessive Alcohol Use Among US Adults Aged 20 to 64 Years, 2015 to 2019” – was published as an open access document on November 1, 2022 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

The study was jointly carried out by Marissa B. Esser, PhD and Gregory Leung, PhD, of the Division of Population Health, of the CDC, in Atlanta, Georgia, and Adam Sherk, PhD, from the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research, at the University of Victoria, in Victoria, Canada.

Excessive Alcohol Use Deaths: Key Points & Findings

  • The estimates in this cross-sectional study of 694,660 mean deaths per year between 2015 and 2019 suggest that excessive alcohol consumption accounted for:
    • 12.9% of total deaths among adults aged 20 to 64 years (equivalent to 1 in 8), and
    • 20.3% of deaths among adults aged 20 to 49 years (equivalent to 1 in 5).
  • This further equates to an estimated annual mean of 140,557 deaths (men: 97,182 deaths or 69.1%; women: 43,375 or 30.9%) could be attributed to excessive alcohol consumption in the U.S. during the 2015-2019 study period.
  • Among all adults aged 20 to 64 years, 694,660 annual mean total deaths were found (men: 432,575 or 66.3%; women: 262,085 or 33.7%).
  • Alcohol-attributable deaths accounted for a larger proportion of total deaths among younger groups:
    • 19,782 of 77,973 total deaths or 25.4% among adults aged 20 to 34 years, and
    • 25,199 of 143,663 or 17.5% among those aged 35 to 49 years.
  • The 3 leading causes of alcohol-attributable deaths by age group were the same for men and women:
    • Adults aged 20-34 years: other poisonings, motor vehicle traffic crashes, and homicide, and
    • Adults aged 35-49 years: other poisonings, alcoholic liver disease, and motor vehicle traffic crashes.
  • Among adults aged 20 to 49 years, excessive drinking was responsible for 44,981 mean annual deaths, or 20.3% of total deaths, as mentioned above, and this percentage was generally lower in states in the Southeast, and higher in the West, upper Midwest, and New England.

The new findings were made possible by the use of the CDC’s new Alcohol-Related Disease Impact (ARDI) application. The ARDI application is able to calculate and show the estimates of alcohol-attributable deaths (and the years of potential life lost) from a total of 58 medical conditions.

What is Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)?

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Alcohol use disorder (AUD) can be briefly and medically defined as “a chronic, relapsing brain disorder.” AUD is the clinical term used to describe a spectrum of physical and psychological alcohol dependence, and it can be diagnosed as mild, moderate or severe.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse & Addiction (NIAAA) defines alcohol use disorder as:

A medical condition characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences. It encompasses the conditions that some people refer to as alcohol abuse, alcohol dependence, alcohol addiction, and the colloquial term, alcoholism.”

Considered a brain disorder, AUD can be mild, moderate, or severe. Lasting changes in the brain caused by alcohol misuse perpetuate AUD and make individuals vulnerable to relapse.”

Severe AUD equates to the previous medical definition for alcoholism.

Because their bodies have become sensitized to alcohol, once they have taken that first drink, the tissues of the body cry out for more and more, until sufferers find that they cannot control the amount of alcohol consumed.
One drink is too many – a hundred, not enough.”

– John G. Cooney, eminent Irish psychiatrist, lecturer, and author of “Under the Weather: Coping with Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.”

The most obvious way to reduce your chances of alcohol-related harms, including the development of AUD, is to follow the recommended guidelines for alcohol consumption, as provided by the 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (as recommended by the CDC).

The Dietary Guidelines recommends that adults of legal drinking age can choose not to drink, or to drink in moderation by limiting intake to:

  • 2 drinks or less in a day for men or
  • 1 drink or less in a day for women, on those days when alcohol is consumed.

The Guidelines do not recommend that people who do not drink alcohol start drinking for any reason, and that if adults of legal drinking age choose to drink alcoholic beverages, drinking less is far better for health than drinking more.

It is also recommended that the following people refrain from drinking any alcohol whatsoever, such as:

  • Women who are or who might be pregnant
  • People with certain conditions or taking certain medicines, and
  • People who are recovering from AUD or unable to control the amount they drink.

The Social & Genetic Risks of Developing AUD

The chances of AUD developing can be influenced by a number of clear risk factors, which include:

  1. Alcohol Consumption: The risk of AUD depends largely on how much, how often, and how quickly you consume alcohol. Over time, alcohol abuse, which includes binge drinking and heavy alcohol use, will significantly increase the risk of AUD.
  2. History of Consumption: Studies have shown people aged 26 years and over who began drinking alcohol before the age of 15 were more than 5x as likely to develop AUD as those who waited until age 21 or later to begin drinking. The risk for females in this age group is higher than males.
  3. Genetics / Family History of Alcohol Misuse: Genetics do play a role in AUD risk; in fact, it is estimated to present around 60% of someone’s overall risk. Parental drinking patterns can also influence the chance that their child(ren) will one day develop AUD.
  4. Mental Health Disorders & Trauma: AUD is often diagnosed with people also suffering with a mental health disorder, eg. depression, social anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Additionally, those with a history of childhood trauma are also at increased risk of AUD.

The Link Between Alcohol & Opioid Use & Overdoses

One of the main drivers of the huge increase in fatal drug overdoses seen last year was polyuse, where users, either knowingly or unknowingly, combine the types of substances they are using, eg. opioids when used with alcohol, or methamphetamine that has been cut with fentanyl.

In fact, in 2017, considered the peak of the opioid epidemic before 2020, 15% of opioid-related deaths, or 1 in 7, involved the use of alcohol.

The use of both opioids and alcohol at the same time significantly increases the likelihood of a fatal drug overdose. This is because both substances are central nervous system depressants, and will combine to increase the respiratory depression normally seen in opioid-only overdoses.

Respiratory depression is the primary reason why many drug overdoses prove fatal.

Furthermore, from 2012 to 2014, more than 2 million people who misused their prescription opioids were also binge drinkers – twice as many as non-drinkers. Furthermore, evidence indicates that around 23% of people who currently have an opioid use disorder (OUD) have a concurrent AUD.

SpringBoard Recovery: Successful AUD Treatment

SpringBoard Recovery, located in Scottsdale, near Phoenix, Arizona, treats all substance use disorders, including AUD. Our intensive outpatient alcohol rehab program will enable you to successfully develop a new lifestyle that does not depend on alcohol.

We take a holistic approach to your rehabilitation, helping you to strengthen your mind, body, and spirit with a well-rounded balance of evidence-based treatments:

  • Address underlying psychological conditions and past traumas.
  • Learn how to identify and avoid high-risk situations, triggers, and relapses.
  • Develop a new lifestyle that doesn’t depend on alcohol use.
  • Receive treatment at our facility and continue living at home or in one of our Recovery Houses.
  • Maintain your work, school, and family commitments while receiving treatment.

Some of the treatment services included in our intensive outpatient program are:

  • One-on-one Counseling
  • Group Counseling
  • Therapeutic Activities
  • Nutritional Counseling
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
  • Case Management

In the early stages of rehabilitation, it can be very difficult for many people to fully commit to their recovery while living in their regular home environment.

At SpringBoard, we offer a unique model that combines our outpatient treatment and Residential Housing. Sometimes called Sober Living, Residential Housing provides a structured, supportive, and stable environment, free from the usual stressors, triggers, and temptations.

Contact us today to learn more about our successful AUD treatment.

Author: Editorial Team
NOVEMBER 9, 2022

SpringBoard Recovery was born from the passion and personal experience of its founders. We understand the real-world challenges of early recovery and are here to help and we are passionate about helping our clients lead balanced, healthy, and fulfilling lives.

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