The number of women drinking dangerous amounts of alcohol is rising sharply in the United States.
That finding was among several troubling conclusions in an analysis of death certificates published Friday by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. The analysis looked at deaths nationwide each year from 1999 through 2017 that mentioned alcohol as a cause, including, acute overdose, its chronic use, or in combination with other drugs.
Overall, the death rate tied to alcohol rose 51% overall in that time period, taking into account population growth. Most noteworthy to researchers was that the rate of deaths among women rose much more sharply, up 85%. In sheer numbers, 18,072 women died from alcohol in 2017, according to death certificates, compared with 7,662 in 1999.
“More women are drinking and they are drinking more,” said Patricia Powell, deputy director of the alcohol institute which is a division of the National Institutes of Health.
Still, far more men than women die from alcohol-related illnesses, the study showed. In 2017, alcohol played a role in the deaths of 72,558 men, compared to 35,914 in 1999, a 35% increase when population growth is factored in.
Like much research of its kind, the findings do not alone offer the reasons behind the increase in alcohol deaths. In fact, the data is confounding in some respects, notably because teenage drinking overall has been dropping for years, a shift that researchers have heralded as a sign that alcohol has been successfully demonized as a serious health risk.
Experts said that the new findings could partly reflect the fact that baby boomers are aging and the health effects of chronic alcohol use have become more apparent. The increase in deaths might also reflect the increase in opioid-related deaths, which in many cases can involve alcohol as well, and that would be reflected on death certificates.
But these factors do not appear to wholly account for the increase in deaths among women, according to researchers. Aaron White, a senior scientific adviser to the institute, who analyzed the death-certificate data, said that a growing body of research shows that alcohol tends to harm women more than it does men, for example, involving heart health and some cancers.
He also noted that teenage use of alcohol, while in decline from earlier generations, has also reflected a narrowing of the gap between the behaviors of girls and boys; 10th grade girls are now as likely to drink as boys, he said, a sharp change over the decades.
“Part of being liberated from male dominance is being able to behave in which way you choose,” Powell said. “Some women have gotten the message that it’s liberating to drink like a man.”
But that problematic message, she noted, doesn’t include the part about how dangerous alcohol is or that women who match a man drink-for-drink are likely to suffer worse health effects.
The researchers said that the new figures, for men and women, may be vastly below alcohol-related death rates because death certificates often do not mention alcohol, even when it is a significant or partial cause. Alcohol can be left off death certificates when coroners or others identify a more immediate and obvious cause, such as a fall that broke a hip, not the alcohol that caused the person to fall in the first place.
Researchers noted that there might be positive trends underneath the raw data. Specifically, the increase in alcohol deaths may reflect a bubble of baby boomers while the dropping rates of alcohol use among teenagers may portend a brighter future.
“If you want to look at this optimistically, we may be a tipping point,” Powell said. “Millennials may be more interested in health.”