Using Death Certificates to Explore Changes in Alcohol-Related Mortality in the United States, 1999 to 2017

Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2020 Jan;44(1):178-187. doi: 10.1111/acer.14239. Epub 2020 Jan 7.


Background: Alcohol consumption, alcohol-related emergency department visits, and hospitalizations have all increased in the last 2 decades, particularly among women and people middle-aged and older. The purpose of this study was to explore data from death certificates to assess whether parallel changes in alcohol-related mortality occurred in the United States in recent years.

Methods: U.S. mortality data from the National Center for Health Statistics were analyzed to estimate the annual number and rate of alcohol-related deaths by age, sex, race, and ethnicity between 1999 and 2017 among people aged 16+. Mortality data contained details from all death certificates filed nationally. For each death, an underlying cause and up to 20 multiple or contributing causes were indicated. Deaths were identified as alcohol-related if an alcohol-induced cause was listed as either an underlying or multiple cause. Joinpoint analyses were performed to assess temporal trends.

Results: The number of alcohol-related deaths per year among people aged 16+ doubled from 35,914 to 72,558, and the rate increased 50.9% from 16.9 to 25.5 per 100,000. Nearly 1 million alcohol-related deaths (944,880) were recorded between 1999 and 2017. In 2017, 2.6% of roughly 2.8 million deaths in the United States involved alcohol. Nearly half of alcohol-related deaths resulted from liver disease (30.7%; 22,245) or overdoses on alcohol alone or with other drugs (17.9%; 12,954). Rates of alcohol-related deaths were highest among males, people in age-groups spanning 45 to 74 years, and among non-Hispanic (NH) American Indians or Alaska Natives. Rates increased for all age-groups except 16 to 20 and 75+ and for all racial and ethnic groups except for initial decreases among Hispanic males and NH Blacks followed by increases. The largest annual increase occurred among NH White females. Rates of acute alcohol-related deaths increased more for people aged 55 to 64, but rates of chronic alcohol-related deaths, which accounted for the majority of alcohol-related deaths, increased more for younger adults aged 25 to 34.

Conclusions: Death certificates suggest that alcohol-related mortality increased in the United States between 1999 and 2017. Given previous reports that death certificates often fail to indicate the contribution of alcohol, the scope of alcohol-related mortality in the United States is likely higher than suggested from death certificates alone. Findings confirm an increasing burden of alcohol on public health and support the need for improving surveillance of alcohol-involved mortality.

Keywords: Alcohol; Cause of Death; Death; Mortality; Trend.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Alcohol Drinking / mortality*
  • Alcohol Drinking / trends*
  • Cause of Death / trends*
  • Death Certificates*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Population Surveillance* / methods
  • United States / epidemiology
  • Young Adult