Watch CBS News

Pandemic alcohol-related health complications hit middle-aged women hardest, Pitt study finds

Medical professionals sound alarm about alcohol addiction spike
Medical professionals sound alarm about alcohol addiction spike 02:49

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- Middle-aged women experienced "stark" increases in alcohol-related health complications during the pandemic, according to research led by a University of Pittsburgh physician-scientist.

The research published Friday in JAMA Health Forum sounds the alarm about the need for public health and clinical interventions to reverse the trend, scientists said. 

"Even though alcohol-related deaths are higher among men than women, the rate of change has increased faster among women compared to men over the last decade," lead author Dr. Bryant Shuey, assistant professor of medicine and internal medicine physician at UPMC, said in a news release. "We anticipated finding some increase in hospitalizations for alcohol-related complications among women. We didn't realize it would be this stark."  

Using a database of over 14 million patients, the researchers looked at monthly rates of alcohol-related complications that required urgent medical care like alcohol-related liver diseases, alcohol withdrawal and alcohol-related heart disease. The researchers analyzed and compared the monthly rate of hospital admissions during the pandemic to what would have been expected based on the pre-COVID trend. 

Middle-aged women's rate of hospital admissions for alcohol-related complications was higher than expected in 10 of the 18 months after the start of the pandemic compared to four out of 18 for all ages and genders. 

Middle-aged women also had higher-than-expected hospital admission rates for alcohol-related liver diseases in 16 of the 18 pandemic months, which concerned researchers because liver disease is the leading underlying cause of alcohol-related deaths in the U.S. 

Why did pandemic drinking hit middle-aged women harder? 

The authors weren't able to pinpoint the exact reasons for these increases but provided a few suggestions, pointing to previous research that has shown American women have upped their alcohol use more than men over the last decade. Alcohol use, meanwhile, has stayed the same or even decreased among men.

An uptick in women's drinking during the pandemic may have "tipped new or worsening alcohol-related health problems over the edge, leading to hospitalization," Pitt said. 

It's also possible that difficulty in accessing outpatient health care during the pandemic and relaxed alcohol policies, like alcohol delivery and cocktails-to-go, could have contributed to increased rates of high-acuity episodes, researchers said. 

Findings suggest that similar increases in alcohol-related complications may have affected males, but more research is needed. 

According to the CDC, excessive alcohol use was to blame for about 178,000 deaths in the U.S. each year during 2020 and 2021. The number of deaths related to excessive alcohol use increased 29% during 2020 and 2021 compared to the previous time frame. 

A new CDC report said more than 6,600 people in Pennsylvania die from excessive drinking in an average year. The report also found nationwide that there were more alcohol-related deaths among men, but the increase was larger for women.  

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.