Women, young adults visiting the ER for alcohol-related issues in growing numbers

WATCH: Disturbing spike in ER visits by young women binge drinking

More and more people are visiting Ontario emergency rooms for alcohol-related problems, according to a new study.

And while middle-aged men remain the most frequent patients, women and adults in their late 20s seem to be catching up.

These were the groups with the fastest-rising rates of visits, according to the study, published Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. The study, by researchers in Ottawa using data from ICES, examined emergency room visits attributable directly to alcohol in Ontario between 2003 and 2016.

Over that time period, the number of alcohol-related visits grew 82 per cent, more than four times the growth in all emergency department visits. Visits by women grew 86 per cent, compared to 53 per cent for men, although men still account for around two-thirds of these patients.

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“We saw problems with people who were coming in who were intoxicated, people who were coming in in withdrawal, people coming in with liver disease, with all sorts of other organ damage that comes from that. And people who’ve had poisonings from drinking too much alcohol as well,” said study co-author Dr. Daniel Myran, a researcher and resident at The Ottawa Hospital.

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The growth in emergency department visits is consistent with higher alcohol consumption and rates of binge drinking, particularly among women, over that time frame, the study said.

While Myran expected to see growth in ER visits, “the scale of the increase was really quite surprising,” he said.

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Women’s drinking has been catching up to men’s worldwide for years, said Tim Stockwell, director of the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research at the University of Victoria.

That’s happened as women started making more money, he said. Social norms are changing too, he said, with women drinking more like men.

“The way we behave as men and women in society has obviously been under enormous change,” he said.

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ER visits by young people aged 25 to 29 years increased by 175 per cent between 2003 and 2016 – the most of any group, according to the study.

While his study didn’t look into the reasons why, Myran said “an increase in targeted marketing and advertisements of alcohol, particularly toward young people” could be one potential contributor.

And people who drink a lot when they’re young might continue to do so as they get older, Stockwell suggested.

“When they’re at an impressionable age, learning to drink and developing their networks and traditions around socializing, they tend to carry those through the life course,” he said.

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Even aside from emergency room visits, alcohol causes harms, Myran said. It harms the individual by putting them at greater risk of accidents, addiction and organ damage, and contributes to many cancers, he said. It also harms others through violence, motor vehicle collisions and disorders like fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

A recent study by the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research found that alcohol use cost the Canadian economy $14.6 billion in lost productivity, health-care and criminal justice costs in 2014.

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“Health-care providers need to be thinking about providing more services screening individuals for unhealthy alcohol use,” Myran said. “This can’t just be about catching people when they’ve had serious complications or when they’ve developed an alcohol use disorder.”

He’d like to see more programs to help people when they’re just starting to drink in unhealthy patterns, to provide them with guidance.

Alcohol consumption moves up and down with the economy and government policies, Stockwell said, and historically speaking, Canadians still drink less than they did in the very early 20th century, or even than in the early 1970s.

“It’s just been rises and falls in the overall consumption of populations all over the world, and with the attendant harms and life goes on,” he said.

“It’s just that people die slightly earlier when there’s high consumption periods and live slightly longer when there’s low consumption periods. And, of course, some people’s lives are cut very short.”

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