Fourth leading cause of preventable deaths in U.S.
It may not capture as many headlines as opioids, spice or fentanyl, but alcohol continues to pose a serious health hazard to more Americans than the drugs du jour featured in the daily news. From binge-drinking college kids to aging alcoholics, people who abuse alcohol create a deadly and costly public health problem.
With April designated as Alcohol Awareness Month, what should we be aware of?
In a nutshell, experts agree that if you choose to drink, do so only in moderation. From cancer risk to car crashes, statistics show that excessive drinking does not end well for alcohol abusers.
An estimated 88,000 people (approximately 62,000 men and 26,000 women) die from alcohol-related causes annually, making alcohol the fourth leading preventable cause of death in the United States. Teen alcohol use kills 4,700 young people each year – more than all illegal drugs combined, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that every 51 minutes, someone dies in the U.S. in a vehicle crash involving an alcohol-impaired driver.
“Alcohol tops the list of toxic agents we see at Parkland,” said Kurt Kleinschmidt, MD, Toxicology Fellowship Program Director at the North Texas Poison Center at Parkland Health & Hospital System and Professor of Emergency Medicine at UT Southwestern Medical Center.
“Alcohol causes well-known health problems like cirrhosis of the liver and traumatic injuries sustained in car crashes,” Dr. Kleinschmidt said. “But excessive drinking is also linked to more than 60 diseases and shortens the lives of heavy users by an average of 30 years.”
Anemia, heart disease, stroke, dementia, depression, gout, epilepsy, pancreatitis and nerve damage are some of the diseases linked to heavy drinking. Alcohol use also increases the risk of cancers of the mouth, esophagus, pharynx, larynx, liver, colon, rectum and breast. Alcohol-related liver disease was the primary cause of almost 1 in 3 liver transplants in the U.S. in 2009.
Addiction occurs due to various factors including genetics, social situations, and psychiatric illnesses. Alcohol Use Disorder is a chronic disease that requires medical treatment as well as psychological and social support. “The earlier people get help, the easier it is to stop,” Dr. Kleinschmidt said. “People need to understand that addiction is a lifelong disease of the brain; stopping is not simply a ‘willpower’ issue…not even close. The important thing is to provide the medical and social resources needed to save lives.”
It’s also important to know that drinking heavily does not mean a person is an alcoholic, Dr. Kleinschmidt added. A study by the CDC revealed that around 90 percent of Americans who drink heavily are not actually considered alcoholics. Alcohol misuse is defined as drinking too much, too often, whereas alcohol dependence, or alcoholism, is the inability to quit drinking.
Experts in the field recommend a comprehensive approach to reducing excessive drinking combining evidence-based community strategies, screening and counseling in healthcare settings, along with quality substance abuse treatment.
Shalonda Hill struggled with depression as a teen, using alcohol to cope with the difficulties in her life. Her cycle of alcohol dependence continued into her early twenties when she turned to her church for help and found support to recover. Today, Hill is a Certified Peer Recovery Support Specialist at Parkland. As a peer navigator, she works with patients with substance abuse and other mental health issues to help them receive the care they need.
“I’ve dedicated my life to helping others find and maintain recovery,” Hill said. Because she has experienced the problems facing patients she encounters at Parkland, she can relate to them and serve as both a credible listener and adviser.
How much alcohol is too much? Dr. Kleinschmidt said that for women, more than 3 drinks at one time or more than 7 drinks in a week indicate a problem. A man who has more than 4 drinks at one time or 14 drinks a week is at risk.
Signs of alcohol abuse or dependence include behaviors like:
• Drinking in the morning, being drunk frequently or drinking alone
• Switching from one type of alcohol to another because you think you will drink less or not get drunk
• Making excuses for your drinking, feeling guilty about drinking or doing things to hide your drinking, such as buying alcohol at different stores
• Not remembering what you did while you were drinking (blacking out)
For advice and information about any toxic substance, including alcohol, call the toll-free hotline of the North Texas Poison Center at Parkland at 800.222.1222. For more information about alcohol abuse, visit http://www.niaaa.nih.gov/ or https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/faqs.htm. To learn more about Parkland services, visit www.parklandhospital.com