More Young Americans Dying From Liver Disease, Drinking to Blame

July 22, 2018 Updated: July 22, 2018    

Researchers say that deaths from liver disease have been on the rise in the United States, and drinking could be to blame.

The new study, published in the BMJ weekly peer-reviewed medical journal on July 18, revealed that between 1999 to 2016, annual deaths from cirrhosis of the liver rose 65 percent. The authors found mortality rates grew from 20,600 in 1999 to nearly 34,200 in 2016, and was the highest among whites, American Indians, and Hispanics.

Cirrhosis is a disease caused primarily by excessive drinking, but can also be caused by a virus such as hepatitis C, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

Data procured from the research team found that adults age 25-34 experienced the highest average annual increase in cirrhosis deaths, which was about 10.5 percent each year. The report notes that mortality rates in this age group were “driven entirely by alcohol related liver disease.”

“These are deaths of despair,” said lead researcher Dr. Elliot Tapper, assistant professor of gastroenterology at the University of Michigan.

Tapper said the liver deaths draw parallels to overdose deaths from the opioid epidemic. He said in both cases the people are trying to escape, or relieve their emotional pain. But he also cautioned that since they conducted an observational study, they cannot prove the cause and effect.

The authors also say that mortality rates first started increasing in 2009, around the same time as the Great Recession, which led to many citizens losing their savings and possibly turning to alcohol as a result.

“We suspect that there is a connection between increased alcohol use and unemployment associated with the global financial crisis. But more research is needed,” Tapper said.

The total deaths caused by cirrhosis of the liver during the 7-year-study period was 460,760. In 2016 alone, 11,073 lives were lost to liver cancer. Researchers examined death certificates in conducting the study.

Study co-author Neehar Parikh said while long-term survival from liver cancer is possible, other factors such as a lack of early detection and few treatment options for when the cancer gets too advanced complicate the issue.

“The rapid rise in liver deaths underscores gaps in care and opportunities for prevention,” Parikh said.