The Grapevine

Binge Drinking Is Killing More Young Americans By Damaging Their Livers

An increasing number of young Americans, both men and women, are dying from liver disease. These preventable deaths may be attributed to the rise in binge drinking over recent years, according to researchers.

The study titled "Mortality due to cirrhosis and liver cancer in the United States, 1999-2016: observational study" was published in the British Medical Journal on July 18.

Long-term liver damage can lead to a late-stage condition known as cirrhosis, which involves scarring of tissue and poor function of the liver. The condition may be caused by excessive alcohol intake, obesity, hepatitis, and even certain medications.

Researchers found the number of Americans dying from cirrhosis increased by 65 percent from 1999 to 2016, while deaths from liver cancer also doubled over the same period. Alcohol-induced disease was the major factor behind the rising deaths, the report stated.

"Dying from cirrhosis, you never wish this on anybody," said lead author Elliot Tapper, a liver specialist at the University of Michigan. However, like our skin, the liver is self-healing. So if people with alcohol-related disease stop drinking, chances are strong that the organ will repair itself.

"Many other organs have the ability to regenerate to some degree, but none have the same capacity as the liver," Tapper added. The healing process can only take a few days or even as long as several months, depending on the severity of the damage.

But in advanced cases, when the scarring is excessive, a transplant may be required. The risk of life-threatening cirrhosis increases when a person engages in binge drinking i.e. consuming more than four or five drinks within 2 hours.

The researchers found that men were twice as likely to die from cirrhosis and nearly four times as likely to die from liver cancer as women. When dividing the data by age groups, they found that people in the 25 to 34 range experienced the greatest increase in cirrhosis-related deaths from 2009 to 2016.

Tapper noted that the idea for the study emerged after he had been treating liver scarring in an increasing number of patients from the aforementioned age group. "We were struck by how the current concept of who develops cirrhosis didn't quite match what we were seeing," he stated. "It was really striking to us to have people that were younger than us in our clinic dying from cirrhosis."

To tackle the problem, it may be a good idea to start with strategies to reduce binge-drinking culture, the researchers said. According to the latest data, one in six Americans tend to binge drink about once a week. 

Other consequences of the practice include an increased risk of injuries, lack of judgment, heart-related problems, worsening of diabetes, affected brain development in younger drinkers, etc.