Alarming increase in alcohol-related health issues in middle-aged women during pandemic

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During the COVID-19 pandemic, middle-aged women saw significant rises in health problems caused by alcohol, according to a study from the University of Pittsburgh, recently published in JAMA Health Forum.

This research has sounded the alarm for the urgent need for public health actions and clinical interventions to address and reverse this worrying trend.

The study, led by Dr. Bryant Shuey, an assistant professor of medicine at UPMC, highlights that although men typically have higher rates of alcohol-related deaths, the increase in such complications has been faster among women over the past decade.

The findings of the research were more striking than anticipated, revealing a considerable increase in hospitalizations due to alcohol-related issues among women.

Researchers used a deidentified commercial insurance database for the study, which included data on over 14 million individuals aged 15 and older.

They specifically examined the monthly rates of urgent medical care needed for alcohol-related complications, including liver diseases like cirrhosis and hepatitis, alcohol withdrawal symptoms, and alcohol-induced heart disease.

The analysis compared the actual hospital admission rates for these complications during the pandemic to the expected rates based on pre-pandemic trends.

They found that, particularly for middle-aged women, hospital admissions were significantly higher than expected for 10 out of the 18 months following the pandemic’s onset in the United States.

This group experienced even higher rates of hospital admissions for alcohol-related liver diseases, which were above expectations in 16 of the 18 months.

Although the study couldn’t pinpoint all the specific causes for the increase, it builds on previous findings that alcohol consumption among U.S. women has been on the rise over the last decade, even as it remained steady or decreased among men.

The pandemic might have exacerbated this trend, pushing many women over the threshold into severe health issues that required hospitalization.

Contributing factors could include increased difficulty in accessing regular outpatient healthcare during the pandemic and more lenient alcohol policies, like the allowance of alcohol delivery.

Dr. Shuey emphasized the importance of reducing alcohol intake to improve health and pointed out that there are numerous effective ways to help people drink less. These include behavioral interventions, medications, and public policies such as raising alcohol taxes and limiting advertising.

While the study focused on middle-aged women, the findings suggest that men might also have experienced similar increases in alcohol-related complications, though further research is needed to confirm this.

This study serves as a critical reminder of the hidden impacts of the pandemic on public health, particularly among women, and underscores the urgent need for targeted health strategies to address these challenges.

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The research findings can be found in JAMA Health Forum.

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