Alcohol Awareness
Healthcare

Alcohol Awareness Month: Assessing America’s Leading Cause Of Preventable Death

“There are more than 178,000 alcohol-related deaths every year …”

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Even in 2024, numerous stereotypes about alcohol abuse continue to linger in the public consciousness. Say the word “alcoholic” and many people still conjure up images of down-on-their-luck homeless people – or menacing-looking vagrants lurking on some inner-city ‘Skid Row.’

The reality is much different, though – and in far too many cases it hits far closer to home than we might want to admit. Part of the problem? The ongoing confusion about what alcoholism really is – and whether we are viewing it correctly or assessing its impact through some distorted, societally rationalized lens.

“Heavy drinking for men is considered only 15 or more drinks per week and for women it’s eight or more drinks per week,” says Dr. Sarah Cottingham, M.D., a family medicine physician and medical director at Lexington Family Practice Forest Acres.

Since April is Alcoholism Awareness Month, now is the perfect time to revisit a disease that’s been around for centuries – yet remains a major health threat despite its preventability. While headlines of late have been devoted to rampant opioid addiction and the seemingly endless increase in fentanyl-related deaths – both of which are eminently worthy of attention – the sad truth is alcoholism isn’t far behind.

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“Alcohol still takes a heavy toll on the community, on families, on individuals,” Dr. Cottingham explained. “There are more than 178,000 alcohol-related deaths every year, which is a lot. That makes it the leading preventable cause of death in the United States.”

There’s also a huge cost associated with the disease – nearly a quarter of a trillion dollars annually when last measured in 2010.

For many patients, alcoholism’s physical consequences are painful – and more pervasive than many imagine. For instance, it’s well known that abusing alcohol can severely damage the liver and kidneys. But the disorders don’t stop there. Alcohol is a known carcinogen. It’s directly linked to cancer of the mouth, throat, esophagus, bowel and female breast. Also, type 2 diabetes, pancreatitis and a serious brain disorder called Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome can also result from alcoholism.

“Certainly, people can drink and not be alcoholics and not have it affect their life nearly as much,” Dr. Cottingham observed. “But there’s plenty of people who are severely affected by the disease.”

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What causes people to drink to excess? Consider something all of us recently experienced: The Covid-19 pandemic, its lockdowns and the fallout from both.

“Ever since COVID, there’s been more anxiety, more depression, and all of that led to many people self-medicating with alcohol and other substances,” Dr. Cottingham said.

In time, illness followed. And once again, many people were completely unaware they were overindulging.

“Because it’s legal, people don’t think of it as being as big of a problem,” Dr. Cottingham noted. “But obviously it still can be a big issue for some people. And a lot of my patients are surprised to discover they’re actually heavy drinkers. They don’t think having two or three glasses a night is a big deal. But it is.”

Other conditions are more readily obvious.

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“Ever since COVID, there’s been more anxiety, more depression …”

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“Excessive alcohol is any alcohol used by people under the age of 21 and any alcohol used by a pregnant woman,” Dr. Cottingham said. “Binge drinking is considered enough to bring your blood alcohol content to 0.08 percent or more. Usually, that is going to be five or more drinks on a single occasion for men or four or more drinks on a single occasion for women. And I don’t think a lot of people would consider themselves binge drinkers that drink that much. But they are.”

Part of the perception problem lies in serving size, Dr. Cottingham noted.

“What we consider a standard drink in the U.S. is 14 grams or 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol. That’s one 12-ounce can of beer with a 5 percent alcohol content,” she said. “And some people are drinking heavier with even higher content than that. Say, 8 ounces of malt liquor, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces – or a shot – of 80-proof liquor. And a lot of people don’t get just one beer when they go to a restaurant or one glass of wine. So, their actual alcohol intake can be greater than they realize. A lot of people are surprised to find that having two or three glasses a night is a big deal.”

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For those who find themselves in that situation, Dr. Cottingham suggested starting with a simple first step.

“Cut back. I always tell my patients,” she said. “Just try to cut back and treat it. You’re going to have your one drink or whatever if you want to have that much a day and if you want to have a drink or two on weekend nights, but obviously, don’t go crazy. Like any other condition, closely watch and monitor it.”

For those who want it, help is available.

“If you or your family think you’re having trouble because drinking at school and at social activities is interfering with work or your personal relationships, obviously you want to talk to your primary care doctor,” Dr. Cottingham said. “They can usually help point you in the right direction. There are lots of sources. Plus, the national drug and alcohol treatment hotline is always available at 1-800-662-HELP. They can give you information about treatment options in your community – and they’ll set you up to talk to somebody about alcohol problems.”

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There’s also Alcoholics Anonymous, which boasts more than 2 million members and has been helping people get (and stay) sober since its founding in 1935.

“Alcoholics Anonymous is a great force for people,” Dr. Cottingham said. “I always tell patients that if they’re willing to do that, you’ve got to find your own meeting. You’ve got to try out a few and see because while they’re teaching the same philosophy they’re all very different. You’ve got to kind of find your clique.”

While recovery isn’t easy, those who have successfully made the journey – including the founder of this media outlet – say it’s worth the trip. And they all agree on something else: Sobriety starts with a single phone call or meeting.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

Mark Powell (Provided)

J. Mark Powell is an award-winning former TV journalist, government communications veteran, and a political consultant. He is also an author and an avid Civil War enthusiast. Got a tip or a story idea for Mark? Email him at mark@fitsnews.com.

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1 comment

River Top fan April 28, 2024 at 7:44 pm

If you drink, don’t get behind the wheel of a car.

Reply

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