Dr. Christine Cauffield, CEO LSF Health Systems

new study published in this month’s Journal of the American Medical Association shows rising alcohol consumption among women is leading to higher rates of death and disease. While men still die more often from drinking-related causes than women, deaths among women are climbing at a faster rate.  

The report examined insurance claims data from 2017 to 2021 on millions of Americans ages 15 and older. Researchers found that during the first year and a half of the coronavirus pandemic, middle-aged women — likely due to increased alcohol consumption — were significantly more likely to experience serious complications like alcohol-related cardiovascular and liver disease, as well as severe withdrawal.  

This new research adds to other studies that show excessive alcohol consumption has generally increased during the last 20 years, while related deaths rose by almost 30% in America from 2016 to 2021.  

The COVID-19 pandemic — like other major catastrophes — caused widespread illness, loss of life and consequently stress that resulted in an increase in drinking habits. Subsequently, the pandemic sparked unprecedented increases in behavioral health problems including mental health disorders and substance use disorders. We’re still battling those impacts today.

In fact, alcohol sales jumped by almost 50% during the pandemic, the largest increase in more than 50 years. Multiple smaller studies suggest that during the pandemic about 25% of people drank more than usual.  

These new trends show increased substance abuse can cause damage to people’s hearts, livers and other organs. Furthermore, researchers in the study found excessive drinking linked to alcohol-related liver and heart disease. Drinking too much can also cause inflammation in your stomach lining which can lead to bleeding and pancreatitis.  

Additionally, alcoholism causes mood disorders. Many alcoholics develop fat in their liver which leads to a range of conditions that can develop when such fat begins to accumulate.  

When that damage from drinking builds up, scar tissue accumulates in the liver and leads to a later stage of the disease, called cirrhosis. Some people with alcohol-related liver disease then develop severe liver inflammation, known as alcohol-associated hepatitis.  

All these health issues and others, are impacting women at inordinate rates since the pandemic, which leads researchers to believe that there is an increased number of women who are exhibiting alcoholic behavior.  

Social and demographic trends can help explain why women are drinking at higher rates. For example, women are marrying and having children at later ages than in previous decades, so they spend more time in the high-risk period for heavy drinking.

Also, researchers noted that women often bore the brunt of family responsibilities and stress during the pandemic, which also contributed to their increased drinking.  

While many of these longer-term increases in drinking predate the pandemic, higher levels of drinking during lockdowns likely exacerbated these issues or contributed to new complications. Some of the health consequences of heavy drinking take time to develop and often emerge 20 or 30 years later. Complications can occur after years of heavy, persistent alcohol use. 

If you know someone showing symptoms of substance abuse disorder, initiate a nonjudgmental conversation with that person. Express your concerns while emphasizing your support and willingness to help. Encourage participation in support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous.  

These groups offer peer support and valuable insights from individuals who have faced similar challenges. 

You can also call our Access to Care line at (877) 229-9098 to find local resources to address the problems they’re struggling with. Visit us online and learn more about the services we offer at LSFHealthSystems.org

Dr. Christine Cauffield, clinical psychologist, is CEO of LSF Health Systems in Jacksonville, a nonprofit organization that manages state-funded behavioral health in a 23-county area from Northeast Florida to North Central Florida. 

This guest column is the opinion of the author and does not necessarily represent the views of the Times-Union. We welcome a diversity of opinions