NEW YORK — Global warming and rising temperatures may increase the prevalence of substance abuse, a new study claims. Scientists in New York have found a notable correlation between higher temperatures and increased hospital admissions for drug and alcohol use in that state.
This study, published in the journal Communications Medicine, is among the first to investigate the relationship between the weather and substance abuse. Over recent decades, there has been a growing trend in episodic drinking and alcohol-related deaths in the United States, especially among middle-aged and older adults. Drug overdose deaths have also surged, increasing more than five-fold since the beginning of the 21st century.
To understand the relationship between substance use – including alcohol, cannabis, cocaine, opioids, and sedatives – and rising temperatures, a team from Columbia University studied the link between hospital admissions related to substance use and heat. They analyzed data from 671,625 alcohol-related and 721,469 drug-related hospital visits in New York State over two decades. This was juxtaposed with extensive records of daily temperatures and relative humidity.
By comparing high-temperature days with nearby cooler days, the team hoped to see the influence of short-term climatic events like heat waves. They found that alcohol-related hospital visits do increase with rising temperatures. Potential reasons for this could include more outdoor activities, risky behavior, increased dehydration due to sweating, increased consumption during pleasant weather, and even instances of drunk driving.
When it comes to drug-related disorders, a similar pattern emerged, but only up to temperatures of 18.8°C (65.8°F). The researchers believe that after reaching a certain temperature threshold, individuals might be more inclined to go outdoors. They also suggest that subsequent research could delve into how pre-existing health conditions might exacerbate substance use in conjunction with higher temperatures.
“We saw that during periods of higher temperatures, there was a corresponding increase in hospital visits related to alcohol and substance use, which also brings attention to some less obvious potential consequences of climate change,” says first author Robbie M. Parks, PhD, assistant professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia Public Health, in a university release.
Dr. Parks and his colleagues also believe their study might be underestimating the relationship between rising temperatures and substance disorders. This is because the most acute cases could result in death before hospitalization.
Future research might correlate death cases with hospital admission records to provide a more comprehensive view of patients’ medical trajectories.
In the meantime, the authors advise public health officials to initiate awareness campaigns about the dangers of substance use during high temperatures. The findings could also guide future policies, focusing on aiding communities susceptible to drug and alcohol abuse during hot weather periods.
“Public health interventions that broadly target alcohol and substance disorders in warmer weather—for example, targeted messaging on the risks of their consumption during warmer weather—should be a public health priority,” says senior author Marianthi-Anna Kioumourtzoglou, ScD, associate professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia Public Health.
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South West News Service writer James Gamble contributed to this report.