MUSC alcohol research leader hopes CDC report on drinking deaths opens eyes

March 06, 2024
Hand wearing a ring pours brown liquid into a glass. An empty wine glass and a bottle of red wind are on a table beside the person.
Deaths related to excessive drinking have gone up substantially. This photo helps illustrate the problem. Photo by Sarah Pack

Newly released research finds that more and more people are drinking themselves to death. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that about 178,000 people died from excessive alcohol use in the United States each year between 2020 and 2021. That’s an almost 30% increase compared with the previous estimate four years earlier.

Howard Becker, Ph.D., director of the Charleston Alcohol Research Center at the Medical University of South Carolina and president of the national Research Society on Alcohol, hopes the news will convince people to take a hard look at their drinking habits. “If family members, friends or coworkers have expressed some concern about an individual's drinking habits and whether they can control their alcohol intake, I think that's the first clue as to whether someone should really take a hard look at how much they're drinking.” 


The CDC report found that drinking too much shortened the lives of those who died by about 23 years. Becker said that unfortunately, the new figures are not surprising. “As the Surgeon General has indicated, we have an epidemic of loneliness and anxiety that's quite pervasive and that has especially grown as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. And so, unfortunately, many people turn to the bottle in trying to deal with those negative emotions and distress. And that's why there's been a significant spike in alcohol use and misuse.”

That spike rose from an existing problem that has been generally underrecognized. “Most people don't realize that more people die every year of alcohol-related causes than any other substance use. As concerning as the opiate epidemic is, it needs to be said that more people die every year from alcohol-related causes than from opiate overdoses.” 

Howard Becker, PhD 
Dr. Howard Becker

Becker said alcohol use is also a significant contributing factor in opiate overdoses. “Drinking alcohol and taking opiates can be a very dangerous combination – in fact, lethal.”

Another eye-opening fact: Alcohol has also surpassed hepatitis C as the main reason people need liver transplants in the United States. “What's most alarming is that people who are in need of a liver transplant because of excessive, harmful levels of drinking are in a much younger age group than what we might have assumed in previous decades. Alcohol-associated liver disease is now most prevalent in 30- to 45-year-old individuals, which is relatively young to need a liver transplant because of heavy, excessive drinking,” Becker said.

Categories of drinking deaths

Deaths from excessive drinking fall into a couple of categories in the CDC’s estimation. Two-thirds of them are linked to chronic conditions tied to drinking, such as cancer, heart disease and liver disease. The other third is related to drinking too much on a single occasion (binge drinking), which can lead to car crashes, poisonings due to people taking substances on top of alcohol and suicides.

The pandemic pushed drinking to new highs, as some people drank at home instead of in bars or restaurants where friends or bartenders might have restrained how much they consumed. Unfortunately, for many people, problems related to harmful drinking will endure even as the threat of COVID-19 infection subsides, Becker said. 

“People who have difficulty controlling their alcohol consumption will continue to have trouble. This runs in parallel with the increase that we see in other areas of mental disorders such as anxiety and depression.”

Research to help people with alcohol issues

Becker, a professor in Psychiatry and Neuroscience, along with his colleagues at the Alcohol Research Center at MUSC, is studying new ways to help people with alcohol use disorder, including the discovery and evaluation of new medications and other treatment options. 

“It needs to be emphasized that alcohol use disorder is a brain disorder. It's a chronic relapsing medical condition. It shouldn't be viewed any differently than something like diabetes or hypertension. There are lifestyle issues that play a role in this, but there are also genetic and biological variables that are important for consideration,” he said.

“We are conducting studies that are looking at various medications and other treatment approaches that will influence how the brain reacts to alcohol. The goal is to help those trying to cut down or abstain by quelling cravings and perhaps enhance the ability of individuals to exert better control over their impulses to want to drink and make them more resilient to factors that would otherwise trigger relapse.”

Seeking help

He encouraged anyone concerned about their drinking to look for help. “There are a lot of really good resources. They can go to the website for the Alcohol Research Center at MUSC. And there are links there to other internet sites that will provide a lot of detailed information about how to evaluate whether one is engaged in harmful levels of drinking. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism funds our Center. We have a link to their website, too.”

The CDC recommends that people avoid alcohol or have two drinks or less in a day if they’re a man and one drink if they’re a woman. “I think the issue is that many people can enjoy the intoxicating effects of one or two drinks – that's just simply a part of the fabric of our society on a variety of different levels,” Becker said.

“But there's a fairly decent swath of the population that just has great difficulty in being able to control how much they drink. And it's those individuals who run into serious problems because they start engaging in harmful levels of drinking that have really big negative consequences in terms of their personal health and medical complications associated with heavy alcohol use. So that's what the concern is.”

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