Dr. Elliot Tapper is a liver specialist, and assistant professor of medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School. Tapper has recently been conducting research with liver disease with young people. A study released Wednesday in the BMJ by Dr. Tapper and his colleague states that fatal liver disease has risen, young people being most affected.
A recent case that especially stood out to Tapper is one of a man in his mid 30s. This specific patient was suffering from chronic liver disease. He had been abusing alcohol for several years, which caused his liver to stop filtering blood. Bilirubin, a yellow waste, began building up in his body. This caused his skin to change color, “His whole body was yellow…he could hardly move. It was difficult for him to breathe…” Tapper recalls.
This patient was far younger than most of the doctors other liver disease patients. Tapper claims to have had several talks with the young man, attempting to get him to stop drinking. “We had long, tearful conversations… but he continued to struggle with alcohol addiction,” he says.
This case, and those alike, are what caused Dr. Tapper to begin researching liver disease in young people.
His study looked over the number of deaths that resulted from cirrhosis, scarring of the liver, and liver cancer. The data came from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), covering the years of 1999 through 2016.
The results showed that deaths from liver-related illnesses indeed increased heavily; morality in younger people rising fastest. The illnesses found can be caused by other things like hepatitis C and obesity; however, the rise involving the studied younger aged Americans was in fact caused by excessive alcohol consumption. The number of young adults between the ages of 25-34 who died annually from alcohol-related liver disease tripple in the years studied, 1999-2016. In 1999 there were 259 alcohol-related liver disease deaths, and 767 in 2016. This result yields a 10% annual increase. The rise in alcohol-related deaths overlap with the rising binge drinking rate between 2002-2012 in the U.S. as well.
Some ethnic groups like whites and Native Americans saw a large increase in these related deaths throughout all ages. On the other hand, the Asian-American group saw decreases.
Dr. Neehar Parikh, Tapper’s co-author and specialist at the University of Michigan Medical School, posed a theory. He says, “It correlates with the global financial crisis,” followed by, “We hypothesize that there may be a loss of opportunity, and the psychological burden that comes with that may have driven some of those patients to abusive drinking”.
The death of young people especially troubles Dr. Parikh, “Each young patient that dies is a tragedy…it’s years of a life lost”.
A report published by the CDC on Tuesday shows that there has been a 43% increase in the age-adjusted death rate from liver cancer since 2000. Another recent study showed that cirrhosis in veterans almost doubled between 2001 and 2013.
Dr Vijay Shah, head of the Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology at Mayo Clinic, says “Alcohol-related liver cirrhosis used to be considered a disease that would happen after 30 years of heavy alcohol consumption…But this study is showing that these problems are actually occurring in individuals in their 20s and 30s”.
Although there has recently been a spiking increase, cirrhosis is still a minor cause of death in young Americans. It only accounts for 1.4% of all total deaths within the studied 25-24 year age range. Back to the ethnic group discussion, cirrhosis does affect one group particularly more than the total amount for the age range in Americans. The disease accounts for 6.3% of deaths in the Native American group in the U.S.
Dr. Tapper thinks that the problem will continue to get worse. He also believes that pairing excessive alcohol consumption and obesity could both pair together to worsen liver disease rates, according to him.
Tapper thinks that “strategic taxing” on can help deter excessive consumption. He aids his case by pointing out how cigarette taxing has been shown to decrease smoking. He also offers that interventions like counseling may also reduce the levels.
In many cases, liver disease can be reversible. If a patient stops drinking sooner rather than later, they have a good chance at recovering. Tapper says he has had patients who came to him in a wheelchair and months later had normal test results because they stopped drinking.