Young adults are drinking themselves to death by causing irreversible damage to their livers, a new study has found.
Researchers say that deaths due to cirrhosis – or damage that leads to scarring of the liver or liver failure – increased across the US by 65 percent since 1999.
The team, from the University of Michigan Medicine, were shocked to find that the biggest increase was among 25-to-34-year-olds, rising 10 percent every year – an overall 240 percent increase.
They admitted their findings are way beyond what they expected and are calling upon lawmakers to implement policy changes – such as rising the minimum price of alcohol – that might help drive down the staggering number.
Cirrhosis is a chronic liver disease that can involve the loss of liver cells or permanent scarring of the organ.
When the healthy liver tissue is lost and replaced with scar tissue, it can block blood flow to the liver.
Alcohol is not the only way that cirrhosis occurs. Infection from hepatitis B or C can also cause the disease.
Early symptoms include poor appetite, fatigue and feeling weak. As the condition worsens, symptoms can include fever, vomiting, bruising and bleeding easily, and jaundice or yellowing of the skin.
According to the CDC, about 31,000 Americans die each year from cirrhosis.
‘I was really struck by the number of patients I was seeing in the clinic who were there for liver-related diseases due to alcohol,’ co-author Dr Elliot Tapper, an assistant professor of gastroenterology and internal medicine at Michigan Medicine, told Daily Mail Online.
‘And they were really young too, in their 20s and 30s, which not something you normally see.’
For the study, he and his colleague Dr Neehar Parikh looked at federal data taken from death certificates and the US Census Bureau.
They found that between 1999 and 2016, the number of annual deaths from cirrhosis increased by 65 percent, to 34,174.
Meanwhile, the number of annual deaths from hepatocellular carcinoma, a common type of liver cancer often caused by cirrhosis, doubled during that period to 11,073.
‘The rate of deaths are so much higher for young people than we thought,’ said Dr Tapper.
‘We thought we would begin to see a decrease in 2014 because of the Direct Acting Antivirals treatment for hep C that had come out.’
DAAs are a relatively new class of medication which has been hailed as a cure for chronic hepatitis C.
They target the virus in various ways to stop it from multiplying, which has led to shorter treatment times and higher cure rates.
‘But it turned out the trend preceded unchecked probably because of the rise of alcohol-related liver disease,’ Dr Tapper continued.
The researchers also wanted to see which groups had been impacted the most by liver deaths.
They found that the highest numbers of fatalities were among whites, Hispanics and Native Americans, particularly since 2009.
Additionally, the District of Columbia was found to have the highest death rate due to liver cancer in the US, followed by Louisiana, Hawaii, Mississippi and New Mexico.
‘When you die in your 60s, when your life-expectancy should have been age 75, that’s horrible,’ said Dr Tapper.
‘But when you die when you’re 25, that’s 30 years when [that person] could have been raising a family. That’s literally the future of the country being injured because of alcohol.’
Both Dr Tapper and Dr Parikh says that deaths due to alcohol-related disease can be prevented on multiple fronts.
Policy strategies include raising the minimum prices for alcohol as well as certain taxes to hopefully dissuade binge drinking, as well as medical interventions such as medications that reduce alcohol cravings.