FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – To many, the numbers were startling.
Alcohol-related deaths have been on the rise in the United States for years, but the uptick had been more gradual. A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, though, showed such deaths rose 25 percent as COVID-19 gripped the country.
More than 99,000 Americans died in 2020 from alcohol-related ailments compared to 79,000 in 2019.
And if the data is any indication, Hoosiers were doing their share of drinking as lockdowns were implemented and people began working from home in record numbers.
Alcohol-related deaths rose more than 22 percent in Indiana during the same time period, according to numbers provided by the Indiana Department of Health, which marks the most drastic spike in at least a decade.
“I do think many people have started drinking more during the pandemic than they did before, and this might be a time to evaluate that and understand whether they are drinking at a level that is sustainable,” said Allen County Health Commissioner Dr. Matthew Sutter. “Or that it is not going to significantly damage their health.”
The state health department documented that 791 people died from alcohol ailments in 2019. That number jumped to 1,023 the following year as lockdowns took affect, people stayed home more often and in some cases became more isolated.
Allen County’s alcohol-related deaths rose to 64 in 2020 from 46 the year prior, according to the data.
Those are just cases reported to the department of health and might not represent the most clear picture of drinking in Indiana.
Sutter, like many experts, cautioned that many people underestimate what alcohol can do to the human body.
It’s a drug, he said, and maybe we don’t think of it as opiates like heroin. Still, we as humans have used it for thousands of years and it comes with its own set of risks.
Over time alcohol can cause problems with the liver and nerves, Sutter said, notwithstanding the short-term effects it has on our judgement.
“The problem with alcohol abuse is it’s a gradual sort of thing,” Sutter said. “It’s not something that people notice, then they feel like they can handle it and then they are drinking large amounts.”
For years, alcohol was the most abused drug in America before opiates took over that spot, according to Parkview Health addictionologist Dr. Timothy Kowaleski.
He also theorizes that alcohol consumption may have gone up while people were working from home during the pandemic, and that maybe when people got their work done early they were quick to crack open a beer or pour a glass of wine.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s dietary guidelines, men should consume no more than two standard drinks per day while women should consume no more than one.
Standard drinks include 12 ounces of a typical beer, five ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits.
Soon, people were possibly drinking more than they had ever before, or their “one” drink became so large it was actually three or four.
“It’s just as hard as any other substance to get over, really,” Kowaleski said of kicking an alcohol addiction. “It’s a substance that produces an abnormal amount of dopamine in the brain, and then your brain thinks you need this substance to survive.”
Plus, alcohol costs the American economy roughly $249 billion in loss, according to a 2019 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That includes $179 billion in workplace productivity, the study said.
“People aren’t being that productive on Super Bowl Monday,” Kowaleski said. “The reality is it’s a huge cost.”
While in many cases it takes years for alcohol to push the body toward death, such a spike in numbers might suggest those suffering from alcohol-induced conditions may have skipped going to the doctor during lockdowns.
“People may have deferred or avoided medical care during the pandemic, which meant they may have waited until they were in dire straits,” Sutter said.
Though health risks from alcohol may be a slow burn, the substance represents the third leading preventable cause of death in the country, according to Sutter.
Newer studies suggest no level of alcohol is completely safe, he said, and that older studies that found low levels of alcohol might be good for the body are now doubted.
Low levels of alcohol may leave minimal or unnoticeable damage, he said. For those who may have upped their intake in recent years, or if they’ve been drinking for a long, long time, he has another message:
“It might be time to see your doctor,” Sutter said.