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To cope with pandemic stress, many women turned to alcohol, continuing a worrying trend

Rates of alcohol-related deaths among women have increased sharply in the past decade.
Woman drinking alcohol
Social isolation, employment insecurity and crushing household and child care demands have amplified stress levels for women so much that they're coping by drinking to excess.Aliaksandra Ivanova / EyeEm / Getty Images

Alcohol-related deaths are on the rise in the U.S., a report published Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds.

The report, from the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics, found that deaths from alcohol use increased by 43 percent from 2006 to 2018.

The findings, which don't include data from this year, come as other research highlights how drinking remains a problem for many in the U.S., particularly among women.

Indeed, the CDC report found that the impact was greatest on women. "While rates were higher for males than females for each year," the study authors wrote, "the rate of change was greater for females."

The report didn't give reasons for the increase among women, but it suggested that women living far outside city limits may have been more at risk. "From 2000 through 2018, greater percentage increases in the rates occurred in rural areas compared with urban areas overall, for both males and females," the authors wrote.

"In more recent years, rates of alcohol-induced deaths were higher in rural areas than urban areas; by 2018, rates were 18 percent higher for males and 23 percent higher for females in rural compared with urban areas," they wrote.

Although the study didn't explore reasons behind the increase in alcohol-related mortality, the years coincided with an economic recession.

Similar stressors are occurring now: Social isolation, employment insecurity and crushing household and child care demands have amplified stress levels for women so much that they're coping by drinking to excess.

"The most problematic alcohol use happened around March and April" of this year, said Lindsey Rodriguez, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of South Florida. Rodriguez was an author of a study published online in June in the journal Addictive Behaviors that linked pandemic stress to a spike in alcohol use.

Excessive alcohol consumption is known to have deleterious health effects, including alcohol poisoning, liver cirrhosis, heart disease and a number of alcohol-related cancers.

Rodriguez and her colleagues found that drinking among men stressed about COVID-19 remained relatively stable, while women's stress drinking increased significantly.

The greater women's stress, Rodriguez found, the more they drank. And "having children in the home was associated with more drinking," she said.

Another study published Tuesday in JAMA Network Open echoed the increase in alcohol consumption related to the pandemic. The study included survey results from more than 1,500 adults.

Compared to 2019, American adults have sharply increased their alcohol intake in 2020, by 14 percent, said an author of the study, Michael Polland, a sociologist at the RAND Corporation.

Indeed, the analytics company Nielsen found that online alcohol sales soared by 524 percent in April, compared to the year before.

"The changes were larger for women," Polland said, adding that women increased their heavy drinking episodes (defined as at least four drinks in one setting) by 41 percent from 2019 to 2020.

Why? Put simply, women often "bear the brunt of parenting, caring for children and the family," said Natalie Crawford, an assistant professor of behavioral, social and health education at the Emory University Rollins School of Public Health in Atlanta.

And alcohol tends to be the "easiest coping strategy," Crawford said, suggesting that the body's neuroadaptive system, which helps us cope with stress, has been altered.

"Over a short time period, the system does a really good job of adapting to stress," Crawford said, "but this is chronic."

The long-term implications of such stress, as well as the coping mechanisms that follow, remain unknown.

"We really don't have a good understanding of what happens when we are in social isolation for such an extensive period of time," Crawford said.

Experts in substance abuse say alcohol use, particularly among women with children, is highly stigmatized. "Women are going to be less likely, and more fearful, to seek help" for their problematic alcohol use, Crawford said.

She added that addiction treatment resources will be even more important once lockdowns are lifted.

"Once this is all over, we will have to reconcile that," Crawford said. "We will have to think about how we reach populations that have been affected and are not integrated into existing treatment programs."

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