Any time you hear the words “alcohol” and “youth” used together in a sentence, you probably think of teenage drinking and driving and the number of deaths that occur involving young adults. That’s one reason the skyrocketing number of young adults dying from alcohol-related cirrhosis is so surprising. Another reason is that cirrhosis doesn’t happen overnight.
Cirrhosis is scarring during the late stage of liver disease. When you do something to your liver that causes damage, it tries to repair itself. Scar tissue forms, resulting in cirrhosis. The more scar tissue that builds over time, the more difficult it is for the liver to function normally.
The organ’s primary function is to filter the blood leaving the digestive tract. The liver takes up toxins and turns them into harmless substances. Cirrhosis makes the liver stiff so that blood is no longer able to flow through it. Toxins including ammonia are released back into circulation.
There are many causes of cirrhosis including those that are not alcohol-related. Hepatitis B and C, an accumulation of fat in the liver, cystic fibrosis, some infections, and certain medications are just some of the causes of non-alcoholic cirrhosis. It is the type of cirrhosis caused by alcohol abuse that is solely responsible for the spike in deaths in young adults.
A recent study showed that the number of deaths from alcohol-related cirrhosis is on the rise. During the period from 1999 to 2016, the number of cirrhosis-related deaths increased by 65% overall. Of all the age groups considered in the study, those aged 25 to 34 years were hit the hardest. This group experienced a more than 10% spike in cirrhosis-related deaths and they were entirely caused by excessive alcohol consumption.
The idea of people this young dying from alcohol-related cirrhosis is startling. Even more disturbing is the fact that it takes ten years or longer of excessive drinking for cirrhosis to occur. This puts a large portion of these young people in their teen years when they began to abuse alcohol. These findings align with research that shows people start drinking at an increasingly early age over time.
Unlike most medical conditions, there are no risk factors that make cirrhosis more likely for some people to develop than others. Cirrhosis caused by excessive alcohol drinking can occur in anyone who drinks too much. The data obtained from the study shows that more young adults are simply drinking themselves to death than in past years. It’s sad enough when a person takes a few years off of their lives because of an addiction to alcohol. These people are losing decades of their lives. Although the deaths occurred during legal drinking age, the slow progression of the disease suggests that many started abusing alcohol early in their teens.
It’s impossible to say whether the increase in the number of young adults dying from cirrhosis will hold steady or grow even larger in the future. For now, the goal is to try and develop strategies that reduce problem drinking among young people. One strategy that has worked in the past is to increase the cost of alcohol. Increasing awareness of the potential risks of alcohol abuse can also help.
Not every person who drinks in excess will develop cirrhosis. Catching the disease early is the key to successful treatment. This is especially challenging since symptoms are often absent early on. By the time symptoms do appear, the damage to the liver is so severe that it is too late to treat them. Some of the symptoms of cirrhosis include:
The damage caused by cirrhosis cannot be reversed. If it is caught early enough, the condition may be treated with a healthy diet and a restriction of alcohol. Some patients require kidney dialysis to clean waste from their bloodstream. Medications may also be given to treat complications caused by the disease.
Once cirrhosis progresses, these treatment options are no longer effective. At this point, a liver transplant is the only option and it isn’t a viable one for every person with the disease.
Moderate drinking is defined by the Center for Disease Control as 1 drink per day for women and 2 drinks per day for men. Excessive drinking includes binge drinking and any drinking of alcohol by a person under the age of 21. Binge drinking is usually considered drinking 4 or more drinks on one occasion for women or 5 or more drinks on one occasion for men.
The best way to protect yourself from cirrhosis is not to engage in excessive alcohol drinking. If you do drink, know the signs and symptoms of cirrhosis. See a doctor for a diagnosis if you recognize any of the symptoms of cirrhosis such as yellowing of the skin and eyes.
The doctor may use an MRI, CT, and/or ultrasound to diagnose cirrhosis. Sometimes a biopsy is taken to learn more about the severity of the condition. If you experience any of the symptoms of cirrhosis, contact Carolina Digestive Health Associates to request an appointment. We will find the cause of your liver symptoms and make sure you get the best treatment for your needs.