By Steven Reinberg
WEDNESDAY, Jan. 8, 2020 (HealthDay News) -- The number of Americans dying from alcohol abuse each year has doubled since 1999, a new study reveals.
Between 1999 and 2017, alcohol-related deaths jumped from nearly 36,000 a year to almost 73,000. That's about 1 million deaths lost to booze over less than two decades, with white women experiencing the greatest annual increases.
"Those deaths are associated with despair -- loss of hope, loss of employment and opportunities for employment, increase in stress -- leading to substance abuse and alcohol abuse," said lead researcher Aaron White. He's a neuroscientist with the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
"We sort of forget about alcohol because it's been around for so long, but it has its fingerprints all over the increase in the deaths involved in deaths of despair," he said.
At least 1 in 5 overdose deaths involves excessive drinking, White noted.
"We think what these data show is what we as an institute have known for quite some time, which is that alcohol causes a considerable amount of harm in our society," he said.
For the study, White's team reviewed death certificate data from the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics. They found that in 2017, alcohol abuse accounted for 2.6% of the nearly 3 million deaths in the United States.
Among these deaths, nearly 50% were from liver disease or overdoses of liquor alone or combined with other drugs, the researchers found.
Alcohol-related deaths were highest among men, people ages 45 to 74, and among Native Americans and Native Alaskans.
Deaths, however, have been increasing among all groups, especially women, White said.
"Women are at greater risk than men at comparable levels of alcohol exposure for alcohol-related cardiovascular diseases, certain cancers, alcohol-related liver disease and acute liver failure due to excessive drinking," the study authors wrote.
That may be due to their physiology. "Because women reach higher blood alcohol levels than men of comparable weights after consuming the same amount of alcohol, their body tissues are exposed to more alcohol and acetaldehyde, a toxic metabolite of alcohol, after each drink," the authors added.
Why alcohol-fueled deaths are rising overall isn't really known, White said.
"I wish I had a good answer, but I just don't," White said.
He added that until the root causes of these deaths are known, the only way to help people is to increase resources for addiction treatment.
Dr. J.C. Garbutt is a professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine's Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies. He, too, said the study highlights the nation's worrisome spike in deaths of despair.
The reasons for the despair are complex, "but are likely relate to a loss of job security, financial collapse, community fragmentation and isolation and other social problems precipitated by our changing world economy and changing culture," said Garbutt, who wasn't part of the study.
Alcohol provides a temporary coping mechanism. It temporarily reduces anxiety and tension, sometimes elevating mood, reducing pain and sometimes leading to brief respites from one's worries, he said.
But alcohol also leads to increased anxiety, stress sensitivity, depression, sleep problems and irritability, Garbutt said. "Alcohol, being the sneaky drug that it is, says to the brain, 'The best way to calm this down is drink more.' Thus, a vicious cycle begins," he explained.
The paper highlights the need to get more information to the public about alcohol's harms, he said.
"Historically, the message about alcohol consumption has been very confusing -- drinking red wine is good for you, a little alcohol a day will make you live longer," Garbutt said. But over the past 10 years, "we have become aware that for health, it is probably better to drink as little as one can."
People need to know that if they cut down or even stop drinking, it is likely that they will feel better, he said.
The report was published Jan. 8 in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.