Fatal liver disease is on the rise in the United States, and the sharpest spike is found among young people.
U.S. deaths from cirrhosis of the liver increased by 65 percent from 1999 to 2016, according to a study published last week in the British Medical Journal. Deaths from liver cancer doubled. The highest average annual increase over those years—10.5 percent—was in people ages 25 to 34, and was driven entirely by alcohol-related liver disease. The increase comes as rates of binge drinking are also on the rise.
“What's happening with young people is dismaying to say the least,” Elliot Tapper, co-author of the study and a liver specialist at the University of Michigan, told NPR. Tapper said young people are showing up in his hospital and clinic every day with alcoholic liver disease. Researchers previously believed the condition primarily affected people after 30 years of heavy alcohol consumption, according to Mayo Clinic expert Vijay Shah.
The good news is that cirrhosis is often reversible: The liver sometimes repairs itself with reduced alcohol consumption.
“I've had patients who came to me in a wheelchair,” Tapper said. “Three months later, they're shoveling snow and their lab tests are normal. It's always because they made that choice to stop drinking.”
The deeper problem, Tapper suggested, is that due to alcohol addiction, many don’t make that choice. —Kiley Crossland