Confronting the hidden toll of alcohol use disorders


Over the past two years, many of my patients have been drinking more alcohol than in the past, reflecting a troubling national response to COVID-19 pandemic-related stress. Two recently published studies assessed the increased death toll of unhealthy drinking habits. Alcohol-related deaths occur due to direct effects of alcohol on the body, such as alcoholic hepatitis (severe cases have a 16-30% mortality rate at 28 days and 56% at one year) or via indirect contributions to fatal traffic and nontraffic injuries (e.g., drowning, falls, aspiration, hypothermia, firearm injuries).

The first study used death certificate data from the National Center for Health Statistics to compare numbers and rates of alcohol-related deaths among individuals 16 years or older in 2019 and 2020. Both the absolute number and age-adjusted rate of deaths involving alcohol increased by about 25%, greater than the 16-18% increases in all-cause deaths and death rate during this period. The largest increases (37-40%) were observed in adults aged 25 to 44 years. A second study used data from the National Vital Statistics System to evaluate mortality trends in adults with the diagnosis of alcohol use disorder (AUD) before (2012-2019) and during (2020-2021) the pandemic. Similarly, deaths with AUD listed as a primary or contributing cause during 2020 and 2021 exceeded projected deaths based on pre-pandemic data by 25% and 22%, respectively, with the 25 to 44 year-old age group demonstrating the largest increases (40% and 34%).

For patients who survive alcoholic hepatitis and other alcohol-related life-threatening injuries, it is critical for physicians to offer evidence-based medical therapy for AUD, outlined in a 2020 American Family Physician article. Since the effects of risky drinking and AUD may not be clinically evident, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends screening and brief behavioral counseling interventions in adolescents and adults to reduce unhealthy alcohol use. Managing alcohol withdrawal syndrome and referring patients to Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step facilitation programs for AUD are also important mitigation strategies.

What about patients who have long been told that having a glass of wine with dinner is good for the heart? Setting aside the question of whether patients underestimate personal alcohol consumption, a large (n=371,463) United Kingdom cohort study recently challenged the theory that light alcohol use lowers cardiovascular risk. Investigators found that after adjustment for healthier lifestyles, light alcohol use (up to 1 drink per day) was associated with increased risk for hypertension and coronary artery disease compared to no use, and heavy use (more than 2 drinks per day) was associated with exponentially increasing cardiovascular risks.

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This post first appeared on the AFP Community Blog.



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