While other addictions hit crisis levels, we can’t ignore soaring alcohol woes

booze-256x1024It’s more than happy hour chardonnays with office mates or malt liquors  at a summer barbecue.

Public health experts are warning that alcohol drinking is rising sharply, and in especially worrisome fashion for women, seniors, African Americans, Latinos, and Americans of Asian descent. As the nation struggles with addiction crises—especially a plague of opioid drug abuse—booze woes may be getting less than their deserved attention.

Our heavy and increasing alcohol consumption, as captured in a sizable and regular survey of Americans’ tippling habits, should be of big concern. That’s because experts note that it can “portend increases in many chronic co-morbidities in which alcohol use has a substantial role.”

Alcohol’s havoc can include:

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, stroke, liver cirrhosis, several types of cancer and infections, pancreatitis, type 2 diabetes, and various injuries. High risk drinking and [alcohol abuse] are disabling, are associated with numerous psychiatric co-morbidities, and impaired productivity and interpersonal functioning, and place psychological and financial burdens on society as a whole and on those who misuse alcohol, their families, friends, and coworkers, as well as through motor vehicle crashes, violence, and property crime.

Although boozing took a dive from the 1970s to the 1990s, it soared thereafter, according to researchers who examined Americans’ drinking through a national survey, conducted regularly, of more than 36,000 individuals. They were carefully screened to ensure they were representative, with researchers taking special pains to ensure accurate data on women, blacks, Latinos, and Asian Americans.

In the 2002-2013 study time, Americans’ overall drinking increased by 11 percent, with roughly 75 percent of all respondents reporting that they had consumed alcohol within the last year. It jumped 30 percent for Asian Americans and 22.4 percent for seniors.

There was worse news when it came to high risk drinking, defined as women who reported consuming at least four or more drinks per day every week and men who downed five or more drinks each day every week. High risk drinking leaped by 29.9 percent overall — but it jumped by 58 percent among women and 65 percent among seniors.

As for alcohol dependence and abuse, the most severe category that most us commonly would call alcoholism, it increased 65.9 percent among the poor (those earning less than $20,000 annually), 83.7 percent among women, and 92.8 percent among African Americans.

Researchers said their findings were troubling and need not only follow-up study but public health responses.

They did not delve deeply into why boozing is booming. Men still struggle more than women do with alcohol but that gender gap is closing. Women’s increasing social and economic equality, which may have lowered social norms against female tippling, also may mean they are subject to greater job and work-life-balance stresses that many may try to ease by drinking. Economic and social changes also may be affecting the drinking habits of people of color and the poor, increasing social consumption for assimilating Asian Americans and prompting African Americans, Latinos, and the poor to try to use alcohol to cope with the huge disparities and inequities they struggle with.

The experts had no notions to explain the “unprecedented” spike in older Americans’ use and abuse of alcohol. But they warned it could add to and become a giant problem, especially as the nation grays. Seniors’ health could be significantly and negatively affected by alcohol, which can contribute to falls, drug interactions, and worsening of their existing and chronic illnesses. It also can speed up cognitive and social declines.

In my practice, I see the major harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, and the huge toll that vehicle wrecks can inflict, especially if alcohol or dangerous drugs have played a part. Our vehicles in recent days have returned to killing us in ways that we maybe thought we had taken steps to prevent, including due to alcohol and drug abuse.

This is preventable. It also may be another of many signals that it can be a complex and constant matter to improve our health and well-being, and our policy- and law-makers need to reckon with this. We can’t spend all our legislative focus just on partisan strife over health insurance (the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare).  People also need decent jobs, fair treatment, safe streets, and social support for themselves and their families to thrive. When inequities flourish, despair does, too, though its exact toll is still under calculation by some excellent minds. We’ve got a lot of work to do, together, to ensure Americans don’t abuse alcohol and drugs. This is a national emergency (and not solely over hugely harmful and lethal opioid drugs) and our public health alarms should be sounding loudly.

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