January 28, 2020

Alcohol-related deaths increasing nationwide

At a Glance

  • An analysis of U.S. death certificate data showed that alcohol-related deaths increased among people in almost all age and racial and ethnic groups between 1999 and 2017.
  • The findings suggest that alcohol-related deaths involving injuries, overdoses, and chronic diseases are a growing public health concern.
Green wine bottle hitting the floor and breaking Alcohol-related deaths nationwide have continued to rise.Tomazl / E+ via Getty Images

Alcohol—whether consumed on a single occasion or over time—can take a serious toll on your health. Alcohol interferes with the brain’s communication pathways. It can change your mood and behavior, and make it harder to think and move properly. Drinking too much can even lead to death, either from an accident, an overdose, or a disease related to chronic use, like heart, pancreas, or liver problems or cancer.

Alcohol consumption and hospital visits have increased in the U.S. over the past twenty years. To determine whether alcohol-related deaths have also changed over this time, Dr. Aaron White at NIH’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and colleagues analyzed data from all U.S. death certificates filed from 1999 to 2017. A death was considered alcohol-related if an alcohol-induced cause was listed as the underlying cause or a contributing cause of death. Results were published online on January 7, 2020, in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

The number of death certificates for people aged 16 and up that mentioned alcohol more than doubled from about 36,000 in 1999 to more than 72,000 in 2017. Nearly 1 million people died from alcohol-related causes between 1999 and 2017. Alcohol played a role in 2.6% of all deaths in the U.S. in 2017.

In 2017, 31% of alcohol-related deaths resulted from liver disease and 18% were from overdoses on alcohol alone or with other drugs. People aged 45–74 had the highest rates of deaths related to alcohol, but the biggest increases over time were among people age 25 –34. However, by the end of the study period, alcohol-related deaths were increasing among people in almost all age and racial and ethnic groups.

The rates of death involving alcohol increased more for women (85%) than men (35%) over the 18-year study period. Women also appear to be at a greater risk than men for alcohol-related cardiovascular diseases, liver disease, alcohol use disorder, and other consequences.

“Alcohol is not a benign substance, and there are many ways it can contribute to mortality,” says NIAAA Director Dr. George F. Koob. “The current findings suggest that alcohol-related deaths involving injuries, overdoses, and chronic diseases are increasing across a wide swath of the population. The report is a wakeup call to the growing threat alcohol poses to public health.”

Studies have shown that alcohol’s contribution often goes unreported on death certificates. Since the study examined death certificates only, the actual number of alcohol-related deaths in 2017 may far exceed the number determined by the authors. 

“Better surveillance of alcohol involvement in mortality is essential in order to better understand and address the impact of alcohol on public health.” Koob notes.

Related Links

References: Using Death Certificates to Explore Changes in Alcohol-Related Mortality in the United States, 1999 to 2017. White AM, Castle IP, Hingson RW, Powell PA. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2020 Jan 7. doi: 10.1111/acer.14239. [Epub ahead of print]. PMID: 31912524.

Funding: NIH's National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).