The Rise In Alcoholic Liver Disease In Young People

Alcoholic liver disease is a result of severe alcohol addiction and often takes years to develop. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, alcoholic liver disease kills an estimated 22,000 Americans every year. Recently, doctors are witnessing a dramatic increase in alcohol-related liver disease in many young adults. The drastic changes to daily life and stresses of the pandemic have had an extreme impact on the lives of young people. The rise in alcoholic liver disease in young people is a concerning trend that could lead to the development of other substance addictions, other diseases and mental health conditions.

What is Alcoholic Liver Disease?

The body’s liver is one of the main areas where alcohol-related harm and diseases can occur. This is because it is the liver’s job to break down consumed alcohol and remove it from the body. When a person is excessively drinking and drinking alcohol at a frequent pace, the liver cannot break down the alcohol fast enough. The liver also helps to filter out waste from the body, makes bile to help the stomach digest food and is a storage unit for sugar that the body uses for energy. Overworking the liver results in damage and the inability to properly perform its intended functions.

A possible image of an inflamed liver due to the rise in alcoholic liver disease in young people.

Alcohol misuse and addiction have resulted in almost half of liver deaths each year. Alcohol-associated liver disease (ALD) is the most common indication for liver transplants in the United States. ALD is the most common alcohol-related cause of death. Despite the severity of the disease, it is very common and very preventable.

The effects of ALD can depend on how long a person has been drinking and how much a person has been drinking. ALD consists of a wide spectrum of liver-related conditions that include fatty liver disease, alcoholic hepatitis and liver cirrhosis.

  • Fatty liver disease – For people who are diagnosed with fatty liver disease, there is a build-up of fat inside the liver cells. This can lead to an enlarged liver. It is the most common alcohol-induced liver condition. Symptoms of the disease can be difficult to spot outside of everyday ailments. Signs include tiredness, weakness and significant weight loss.
  • Alcoholic hepatitis – Alcoholic hepatitis causes acute inflammation of the liver. As a result, liver cells die followed by permanent scarring. Symptoms of this disease include pain in the liver, fever, nausea, vomiting, appetite loss and yellowing of the eyes and skin.
  • Alcoholic cirrhosis – Alcohol cirrhosis is caused by the destruction of normal liver tissue. It leaves scar tissue in the place of working liver tissue. The symptoms of alcoholic cirrhosis include jaundice, portal hypertension, enlarged spleen, poor nutrition, swelling of the abdomen, kidney failure and liver cancer.

Alcoholic cirrhosis is the most severe form of alcoholic liver disease and use to be an illness that affected middle-aged and older adults. Now, a shift in demographics has presented findings of more and more young adults suffering from this alcohol-related disease. In a 2018 study, research found that between the years of 2009 and 2016, alcoholic cirrhosis-related deaths sharply increased among the young adult age group.

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The impact of Alcoholic Liver Disease and Young People

For many young people, drinking is a part of socializing and cultural norms. Mimosas at brunch, college binge drinking and Saturday night bar crawls are all examples of the glorification of excessive alcohol consumption. Media, entertainment and the fact that young people’s brains are not fully developed are factors contributing to the development of alcohol-related conditions. Young people are not always concerned with diseases such as alcoholic liver and do not understand the severity and the importance of treatment.

Doctors are now seeing younger patients ages 25-35, with liver disease. It is a disease that traditionally affected older adults in their 50s and 60s.  A 2018 study published by the British Medical Journal found that death from liver cirrhosis has increased significantly in young people. According to a study from the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences, the risk for liver cirrhosis is about 116% higher for millennials born in 1990 compared to baby boomers born in 1951. Today, death from alcoholic related liver disease is highest among the millennial-age population.

Many more of these young adults are being diagnosed earlier in life. Physicians are also finding it alarming that young and newly diagnosed patients are always surprised to learn that their drinking habits can cause such damage and severity to their liver.

Covid-19 and Alcoholic Liver Disease

With the onset of the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic, alcohol addiction and alcohol-related liver conditions only worsened. According to a recent 2022 report from the Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology, the pandemic created a catalyst for a sharp increase in alcohol liver disease deaths.

Economic uncertainty, isolation and underlying untreated trauma contributed to the increase in alcohol intake in young people. Zoom happy hours instead of social get-togethers perpetuated the glorification of drinking. Young people began to underestimate how much alcohol they were consuming. The lack of sense of time and the fact that they were drinking in the comforts of their own home made it easy to drink more.   

All of these factors increased the amount of alcohol consumed during the past few years of the pandemic. As a result, there was an increase in the development of alcohol addiction and alcohol-associated liver disease among a young and vulnerable population.

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Treatment options for Alcohol-related Liver Disease

Liver damage from alcohol is treatable. Medical treatments can include diuretics to eliminate the excess fluid in the body and steroids to help reduce inflammation of the liver. Other non-medication treatments include changing to a healthier diet of low fat, salt and sugar, regular exercise, management of underlying conditions like high blood pressure and abstaining from alcohol.

To fully recover from ALD requires treatment for alcohol abuse and addiction. Addressing alcohol use disorder and liver disease can be greatly beneficial for the patient and ensure a higher success of recovery. Research has shown growing evidence in the integrative treatment of alcohol use disorder and ALD can significantly improve patient recovery.

Oftentimes, when patients are admitted into treatment for ALD, they are not being tested and treated for alcohol abuse and addiction. The root cause of ALD is often alcohol use disorder. Alcoholic liver disease is a physical indicator derived from emotional and psychological distresses being treated with alcohol. Successful treatment should include both psychological treatments as well as appropriate medication treatments. Alcohol use disorder treatment will target the emotional triggers that lead to drinking and can help prevent and control the development of alcohol-related liver conditions.At Hotel California by the Sea, the alcohol use disorder program has options for detox, residential and outpatient treatments. Because alcoholic liver disease is the most prevalent in patients suffering from alcohol use disorder, it is important to address these conditions concurrently. Patients will receive a comprehensive treatment plan that includes medically managed treatments and intensive therapies. Alcoholic liver disease is a result of underlying emotional stresses leading to alcohol as a form of self-medication. The alcohol use disorder treatment track will help patients get to the root causes of their condition and recover from alcoholic related issues.