According to a study published last month by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, annual alcohol-related deaths in the United States more than doubled between 1999 to 2017, from 35,914 to 72,558. In 2017, alcohol played a role in 2.6 percent of deaths in the United States.
Perhaps even more troublingly, more and more of these deaths are occurring in young people: People ages 25 to 34 saw the highest increase in cirrhosis deaths during the same period.
Part of the problem, public health experts say, is that young people have a mental image of who’s affected by alcohol-related disease, and it’s not them. “They think it’s an older white guy who has cirrhosis, he’s been sitting around in a bar after work for decades,” Lindsay Yoder, an IU Health physician assistant who runs a weekly outpatient clinic for patients with liver disease, told USA Today. “I see a really high percentage of patients in that clinic that are young.”
Another frustrating factor for doctors and patients alike is that similar drinking patterns can affect any two people in totally different ways — a heavier drinker can go years without physical consequences, while someone who drinks less might end up in the hospital with alcohol-related liver disease. Genetics may be part of it. But doctors warn that consistent, “moderate” drinking can be as harmful — or more harmful — than irregular heavy drinking.
The CDC defines moderate alcohol consumption as “up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men.”
“An almost daily basis of a moderate amount of alcohol can be much more harmful than a binge drinker who drinks once a month and then quits,” Mazen Alsatie, a gastroenterologist and hepatologist with Ascension St. Vincent, told USA Today.
While early-stage liver disease can be reversed if the patient stops drinking entirely, liver disease can go unnoticed until it’s advanced, when symptoms like jaundice, nausea, vomiting, or abdominal pain and swelling arise. At that point, experts warn, it may be too late.