A new study shows that alcohol-related deaths among women are rising at a faster rate than those among men, particularly for people 65 and older.
The study analyzed data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on over 600,000 deaths linked to alcohol between 1999 and 2020, including those from alcohol poisoning, alcoholic liver disease, alcoholic cardiomyopathy, acute intoxication and mental and behavioral disorders linked to alcohol consumption, among other causes.
Over the past 15 years, alcohol-related deaths have steadily increased in the United States and, historically, more men have died from alcohol-related causes. That’s still the case, this study shows, but the gap is narrowing. From 2018 to 2020, alcohol-related deaths increased by 12.5 percent per year for men, but by 14.7 percent per year for women. The study highlighted rising rates among older women, in particular: From 2012 to 2020, alcohol-related deaths among women 65 and older increased by 6.7 percent per year, compared with an increase of 5.2 percent per year for men in the same age range.
The study does not pinpoint the reasons behind the rise in female alcohol-related deaths, said Dr. Ibraheem Karaye, an assistant professor of population health at Hofstra University and the lead author of the study. But he offered a few potential theories. First, rates of alcohol consumption seem to be growing among women, Dr. Karaye said. He also noted that alcohol hits women differently: Women’s bodies tend to have less fluid to dilute alcohol compared with men’s bodies, which results in higher blood-alcohol concentrations and may make women more vulnerable to health complications.
Women are also at higher risk for depression and anxiety, said George F. Koob, the director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, and they might be turning to alcohol to cope, especially in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Older women are also particularly prone to experiencing feelings of loneliness, he said, as they often outlive their partners.
The higher mortality rates among older women may also stem from the accumulated toll that alcohol takes throughout the course of one’s life, Dr. Karaye said. Women over 65 may not be consuming more alcohol than their younger counterparts, but suffering the health effects of decades of chronic drinking.
How to re-evaluate your drinking and reduce your risk
Anyone can benefit from drinking less alcohol. Over the last few years in particular, a wealth of research has sharpened the link between even casual drinking and severe health consequences.
Even if you’ve been a consistent drinker throughout your life, scaling back now can help to reduce your risk, said Johannes Thrul, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. In the short term, you’re lowering the chance of injuring yourself; over time, you lessen the potential for chronic health issues associated with alcohol use, he said.
Dr. Karaye agreed: “Reducing or eliminating exposure at any point would be valuable.”
Several experts recommended a guide from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism called “Rethinking Drinking,” which can help you evaluate your alcohol usage, create a plan to cut down or quit and determine whether you should seek professional help.
For older adults who are wondering if their drinking is problematic, Dr. Koob said there were a few factors they may want to consider. Alcohol can cause your social interactions to deteriorate, he said — for example, if you are slurring while talking on the phone to your grandchildren at night, or acting more cranky and irritable during the day. People may also find that drinking disrupts their sleep or keeps them from regularly exercising, or that they are more prone to falls after consuming alcohol, he said.
Taking a few days off drinking can also help you assess your relationship with alcohol, Dr. Koob advised: If you feel better on those days — you’re more clearheaded, you’re sleeping more soundly — that’s a strong indication that you should cut back.
It’s important not to think of your alcohol use as strictly binary — that you either have an issue or you don’t, said Holly Whitaker, the author of “Quit Like a Woman: The Radical Choice to Not Drink in a Culture Obsessed With Alcohol.” Instead, she said, it’s crucial to think about the net impact that alcohol has on your life, and to “really tune into, does this not feel good?”
Dr. Thrul said that a useful strategy to cut back is to identify the instances and occasions when you most want to drink so you can plan ahead and think about alternatives, like the expanding spate of alcohol-free beverages.
“Really, low-risk drinking is not drinking at all,” Dr. Thrul said. “This is something that society is just starting to understand.”