More Americans are drinking alcohol in general, a new study finds, but perhaps more alarming is that many more fall into the categories of high-risk drinking and alcohol use disorder (AUD). The increases were seen from the years 2001-2002 to 2012-2013 in a number of demographics. In fact, the greatest increases in alcohol use were women, minorities, older adults, and people of lower socioeconomic status. The authors point out that while the public conversation has largely been on opioids and pot in recent years, alcohol use and abuse have been quietly rising.
The study, published in the JAMA Psychiatry, looked at data from almost 80,000 participants taking part in two large-scale studies in the U.S. Participants were interviewed face-to-face and asked about their daily drinking habits. The researchers were interested in their alcohol use over a 12-month period, high-risk drinking (four or more drinks for women and five or more drinks for men on at least one day of the week), and AUD as defined by the DSM-IV, the “bible” of mental health disorders.
Almost all kinds of drinking across all demographics rose between the two time points, and some rose sharply.
- Alcohol use rose from 65% to 73% of the adult population, which is about an 11% increase. The increase was much higher for minorities, women, seniors, and people with less education and income.
- High-risk drinking rose from about 10% to 13% of the population, or an almost 30% increase. In minorities, women, and older people, the numbers were considerably higher.
- People who were identified as having alcohol use disorder (AUD) increased from 9% to 13% of the population, an increase of almost 50%. For women, the increase in AUD was 84%, for Hispanic and African-American individuals it was 52% and 94%, respectively. And for older people, the increase was a whopping 105%.
In other words, people are drinking more alcohol than before, and more people are drinking alcohol than before.
The percentages clearly rose much more for certain demographics. For women, the authors write, the rise in alcohol use may be due in part to work-life balance stress. “Stress associated with pursuing a career and raising a family,” the authors write, “may lead to increases in high-risk drinking and AUD among women, results that were consistent with substantial increases in these patterns of alcohol use among married individuals and those residing in urban areas found in this study.”
For minorities, increased drinking may also have to do with stress, but a different type. “Wealth inequality between minorities and whites has widened during and after the 2008 recession,” the team points out, “possibly leading to increased stress and demoralization.”
There are major chronic health risks associated with alcohol use for all of us—heart disease, stroke, cancer, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, cirrhosis, and pancreatitis. And for women, breast cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder are particular risks of alcohol use, especially heavy use.
Since so much of the public attention has been on prescription opioids, heroin, and even pot, the fact that alcohol is one of the most deadly drugs around may have receded into the background. The authors call the rising alcohol problem a “public health crisis that may have been overshadowed by increases in much less prevalent substance use.” There are certainly effective treatments for alcohol addiction, and they’ve gotten better over the years. But equally as important as treatments is fixing the societal problems that lead people to drink in the first place.
By Alice G. Walton