By Danika McClure
The percentage of Americans struggling with alcohol addiction has risen drastically over the past decade, to the point that researchers now claim that it’s a public health crisis that may be the next opioid epidemic.
High-risk alcohol consumption increased by nearly 30 percent among U.S. adults between the years of 2001-2002 and 2012-2013, according to a study published last month in JAMA Psychiatry.
Researchers conducted face-to-face interviews with over 40,000 Americans spanning a ten year period of time. Initial interviews were conducted between 2001-2002, with follow-up interviews occurring between 2012-2013. They hoped to gain an understanding of what individuals’ drinking patterns would look like throughout the course of a year, and how those would change over the course of a decade.
The results, unfortunately, were less than ideal. Alcohol use had risen 11 percent overall, and those who engaged in what is deemed as high-risk drinking rose from 20.2 million to nearly 30 million.
These drastic changes are “pretty unprecedented,” argues lead study author Bridget Grant, an epidemiologist at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. In particular, she worries about the particular groups that this increase affects most heavily.
“Heavy drinking was up 65 percent among those aged 65 and older, 62 percent among black Americans, and 58 percent among women,” Olivia Campbell writes for New York Mag. “For Alcohol Use Disorder, people aged 45 to 64 saw an 82 percent increase, while those 65 and older a 107 percent increase. Among women and black Americans, Alcohol Use Disorder increased 84 percent and 93 percent, respectively. Notable increases were also seen among those with lower incomes and lower education levels.”
There are a number of factors at play, including genetic predispositions, but Grant in particular acknowledges that the economic downturn has played a significant role.
“Whenever there’s more economic stress for the country as a whole, people increasingly turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism,” she explains. Since depression rates have also skyrocketed, she also indicates that people may be using alcohol as a coping mechanism.
Regardless of the reasons for these changes, many experts are now worried about what the future may look like for Americans.
In particular, public health experts are concerned because alcohol consumption is tied to a slew of chronic medical problems, including cancer, stroke, heart disease, cirrhosis of the liver, diabetes, a number of psychiatric problems, and higher risk of death. Additionally, injuries caused by drunk drivers are also expected to rise.
To put this issue into perspective, “as little as a drink and a half per day can cause a significant increase in the risk of breast cancer, while heavy drinking can take as much as five to ten years off a person’s life,” Marc Schuckit, a psychiatrist at the University of California-San Diego School of Medicine explains. “Alcohol-related problems are estimated to cost society as much as $250 billion per year.”
Despite this, public health officials may have a harder time when it comes to deterring the use of alcohol as a coping mechanism, as the public is relatively unaware of just how bad alcohol consumption is on your health.
Once a substance is made legal and becomes generally acceptable, you’re going to have a heck of a time getting people to restrict their use of it,” Schuckit said. “It’s so common, with a fairly low effect per dose — the effect is not as dramatic as, say, a line of cocaine. It’s been around a long time, and been acceptable for many, many generations. That interferes with people looking at themselves and seeing that they have a problem.”
Moving forward, policy makers, politicians, and public health experts are going to have to work together to create tangible campaigns to educate the public about the real dangers of the overconsumption of alcohol.
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