The U.S.’s alcohol-induced death rate rose sharply in the pandemic’s first year

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The death rate from alcohol use rose sharply in the United States in the first year of the pandemic. From 2019 to 2020, the rate of alcohol-induced deaths climbed 26 percent, from 10.4 per 100,000 people to 13.1 per 100,000, researchers report in a National Center for Health Statistics data brief published November 4.

The rate of alcohol-induced deaths has generally increased yearly for the last two decades, but the annual uptick tended to be 7 percent or less.

Deaths from alcoholic liver disease, which includes hepatitis and cirrhosis, were the most common driver of the increased rate. Deaths from mental and behavioral disorders due to alcohol use — mortality from dependence syndrome or withdrawal, for example — were the second most frequent contributor.

Other researchers have reported that adults were drinking more frequently, and more heavily, early in the pandemic compared with the year before.

There is also evidence of an increase in cases of alcoholic liver disease. A study at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore reported that 2.3 times as many patients with severe alcoholic liver disease and with recent unhealthy drinking were referred to their liver transplant center from July to December of 2020 compared with those months in 2019.

The jump in the alcohol-induced death rate isn’t surprising, considering how much data “had been pointing in this direction,” says transplant hepatologist Victor Chen of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

The liver can regenerate, but only up to a point, Chen says. Once the liver is permanently damaged with scar tissue, the recommendation is to stop drinking alcohol to prevent more harm. The combination of underlying liver disease and more drinking can “cause liver symptoms, and ultimately death, if you don’t get a transplant early enough.”

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