Alcohol-Related Liver Disease Is Affecting New Demographics

By Maggie Ethridge 02/05/19
Alcohol-related liver damage used to be associated with older men but new statistics suggest that the disease is now increasingly affecting younger people.
doctor displaying fake liver

A new troubling trend is on the rise with regard to alcoholic liver disease, or ALD.

Over the years, as young people began to drink more and more, related problems began to arise. College-aged-kids going into alcoholic comas, becoming injured or dying during drunken frat-house parties have become a pressing concern, and now doctors are seeing ALD in more younger Americans.

ALD used to be considered “an old man’s disease,” Michigan Medicine liver specialist Jessica Mellinger, MD, told Michigan Health. Onset symptoms of alcoholic liver disease include chronic fatigue, poor appetite, itchy skin and abdominal pain and swelling. 

A national study led by Mellinger and colleagues looked at seven years of data from over 100 million U.S. residents with insurance. “One of the scariest statistics out there that my colleagues unveiled in a study is that cirrhosis mortality related to alcohol use increased the most in people 25 to 34 years old,” Mellinger said. 

Between 1999 and 2016, there was an average increase around 10% every year of young people who died from alcohol-related liver damage.

“This is really dramatic and mirrors what we are seeing in the clinic,” Mellinger notes. “It signals that more alcohol abuse is occurring.”

The research found that more women than men had alcohol-related cirrhosis of the liver over the seven-year study, with women at a 50% increase and men at 30%. Over one-third of cirrhosis cases in the study were related to alcohol.

Men and women absorb and metabolize alcohol differently, leaving women more vulnerable to liver damage. And women also have less body water, so women and men with the same amount of alcohol consumption will have different blood alcohol concentrations.

Mellinger also believes that American culture plays a part in women’s drinking. “There is this ‘mommy juice’ culture, this ‘mommy juice’ humor involving wine that’s normalizing drinking in a bad way,” she told Michigan Health. “There is nothing funny about alcoholic liver disease.”

In addition, Dr. Vijay Shah, head of the Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology at the Mayo Clinic, told NPR that the study's emphasis on American youth is new.

"Alcohol-related liver cirrhosis used to be considered a disease that would happen after 30 years of heavy alcohol consumption," Shah said. "But this study is showing that these problems are actually occurring in individuals in their 20s and 30s."

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Maggie May Ethridge is the author of Atmospheric Disturbances: Scenes From a Marriage (Shebooks, 2014) and the recently completed novel, Agitate My Heart. She is a freelance writer published in Rolling Stone, VOX, Washington Post, The Guardian and many others. Find her at her blog Flux Capacitor or on LinkedIn or Twitter.