Excessive drinking during pandemic leads to dramatic spike in liver transplants, study says

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The national list for people seeking liver transplants skyrocketed during the coronavirus pandemic, shooting up 50% higher than predicted before COVID-19 affected the country. 

A study released Tuesday by University of Michigan researchers – published in JAMA Network Open – revealed a positive correlation between the increase in the number of people on a waiting list for a liver and the increase in retail sales of alcohol during the pandemic timeframe. 

People seeking liver transplants experience alcoholic hepatitis – when the liver stops processing alcohol and instead creates toxic chemicals that trigger inflammation and kill off healthy liver cells needed to survive.

In the new study, researchers compared the exact number of new people put on the U.S. organ transplant list from March 2020 to January 2021 with the projected numbers that were based on pre-pandemic data. Researchers next correlated national monthly retail alcohol sales records between January 2016 and 2021. 

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"While we cannot confirm causality, this disproportionate increase in association with increasing alcohol sales may indicate a relationship with known increases in alcohol misuse during COVID-19," the researchers wrote, "this study provides evidence for an alarming increase in (alcoholic hepatitis) associated with increasing alcohol misuse during COVID-19 and highlights the need for public health interventions around excessive alcohol consumption."

Alcoholic hepatitis is a condition that often develops after years of heavy drinking; however, it can also develop after a short period of excess. Scientists are unclear as to why the condition develops for certain people. 

The study falls in line with previous pandemic research, including one study that reported nearly 1 in 5 Americans turning to "heavy drinking" to cope as recently as April. A study by the Rand Corp. last fall found the frequency of alcohol consumption in the U.S. rose 14% compared with before the pandemic. Women, in particular, increased heavy drinking days by 41%, according to the study.

A survey published Monday by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found different results – with American adults claiming to have consumed about the same amount of alcohol during the pandemic, at least in the fourth quarter of 2020.

Contributing: Grace Hauck.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Pandemic drinking, alcohol sales spike liver transplants, study says

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