America’s alcohol habit comes with a hefty annual death toll, new research shows. The study estimates that excess drinking is responsible for one of every eight deaths in Americans between the ages of 20 to 64 every year. And though younger people are less likely to die in general, alcohol might help cause one in every five deaths among adults below the age of 50.
It’s long been clear that drinking alcohol can be deadly, especially chronically heavy or binge drinking. But scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wanted a better understanding of how much alcohol can contribute to deaths that might not be entirely caused by it, such as certain cancers. So they decided to analyze recent years’ worth of mortality data as well as data on how often Americans are drinking. They then applied this data to newly calculated estimates of how much alcohol fully and partially contributes to various acute and chronic causes of death (a fully attributable death, for instance, would be someone dying from alcoholic liver disease).
Earlier this year, the CDC released their updated numbers for the country as a whole. They now estimate that excessive alcohol use is responsible for more than 140,000 deaths in the United States annually—up from their previous estimate of 95,000 alcohol-related deaths a year. But these new findings, published in JAMA Network Open on Tuesday, show that many of these deaths are happening among working-age Americans.
Between 2015 to 2019, there were an average 694,660 annual deaths among adults aged 20 to 64 years. About 13% of these deaths (nearly 90,000 a year) were attributable to excessive alcohol use, the researchers found. And for Americans between the ages of 20 to 49, excessive alcohol use helped cause about 20% of deaths during the same time period (about 45,000 a year).
These new figures may still undersell the harms of alcohol, the authors note. Some alcohol-related deaths among people who quit drinking might have been missed due to the study’s design, for instance. And there’s a lack of relevant data on how much alcohol can contribute to some causes of death in the U.S., such as HIV/AIDS. These estimates also predate the emergence of covid-19 and other data have shown that alcohol consumption, and by extension, alcohol-related deaths, only worsened during the first year of the pandemic.
While drinking isn’t going to fall out of favor anytime soon, the authors say that more can be done to mitigate its harms.
“These premature deaths could be reduced through increased implementation of evidence-based alcohol policies (eg, increasing alcohol taxes, regulating alcohol outlet density), and alcohol screening and brief intervention,” they wrote.