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WKYT Investigates: Drinking in the pandemic

Researchers at the University of Kentucky say they’re seeing a rise in drinking and stress on caregivers.
Published: Apr. 26, 2021 at 2:55 PM EDT
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - We are just now starting to see the effects of a year of COVID-19 restrictions.

Researchers at Kaiser Health say doctors across the country are dealing with a rise in alcohol-related diseases. Researchers at the University of Kentucky say they’re seeing a rise in drinking and stress on caregivers.

“People say in treatment facilities that I’ve been in, the opposite of addiction is connection and I really believe that’s true,” notes Jessica Dueñas.

Dueñas lost that connection when COVID hit Kentucky. The recovering alcoholic, who, in 2019, held the title of Kentucky Teacher of the Year, thrived in the classroom, around people. The pandemic kept her away from both.

“It was also really abrupt and shocking to suddenly go from seeing your students every day, and greeting them, and hugging them, and welcoming them, laughing with them, to suddenly just seeing them as these little faces on screens, and so in terms of recovery it was also the same challenge,” says Dueñas. “We were used to being able to go to these meetings in person, see each other, if we were upset we could actually have a human hug, we could go have a meal afterward.”

National research shows isolation, unemployment, and hopelessness linked to COVID-19 is to blame for an explosion in alcohol-related liver disease. Kaiser Health says women are suffering at higher rates. UK HealthCare’s Dr. Anna Christina de la Cruz says there are several reasons - women metabolize alcohol at a much slower rate, and they have less body water.

“The safe thresholds are one drink or less per day for women and older people. If it’s men, two drinks or less is kind of the threshold. If they’re beyond that, it’s considered excessive or heavy drinking,” says Dr. de la Cruz. “There’s a lot of patients that may have been in remission from their alcohol use disorder over the last few years, however, if they were undergoing group therapy or having face-to-face therapies with their counselors or AA or support groups, they’ve lacked this support.”

There’s one more reason researchers give for womens’ rise in drinking during the pandemic - they are often the primary caregivers. University of Kentucky professor, Dr. Jessica Weafer, has been studying drinking during the pandemic.

“It was the caregivers that are really seeing the most pronounced increase, so that goes for drinking, sleep and stress. All three of those things are far worse for caregivers now compared to non-caregivers,” notes Dr. Weafer. “We kind of think of alcohol use disorders and drug addiction in general as being a predominantly male-oriented disorder, and we do know that overall men drink more than women and more often, but that sex gap is shrinking at really alarming rates.”

Dr. Weafer say the age gap is shrinking, too. Her research will be published this fall.

Dueñas started a blog where she shares her experiences and the stories of others.

“If you do feel that you do have a problem, at least investigate it. You don’t have to go online and tell the world, but you might want to have a conversation with your doctor, especially because suddenly putting alcohol down depending on the use can be actually really dangerous in terms of withdrawal symptoms, so I just honestly encourage everyone to have a safe conversation with their physician,” says Dueñas.

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