A little more than a year ago, Eric Dunham had the operation that saved his life: a double transplant to give him a new liver and a new kidney. Chronic, heavy drinking had destroyed his organs.
What to many people is a celebratory elixir or social lubricant, alcohol can ravage the body. And it doesn’t take decades for it to do its damage.
Dunham had just turned 33.
“I would have never thought it — not ever,” he said. “You think you’re taking the safe road with alcohol because it’s not a drug. It’s legal.”
As deaths from alcohol-related liver diseases like cirrhosis and cancer have skyrocketed, one of the most disturbing parts of that trend is the staggering rise in its youngest victims. People ages 25 to 34 represent the greatest increase in deaths driven by alcohol-related liver cirrhosis — a nearly 11% increase per year from 2009 to 2017, said research published in the BMJ and updated in August.
“Every day on rounds, all of America’s liver specialists are seeing multiple young people in various states of liver failure,” said Elliot B. Tapper, an assistant professor with the University of Michigan Medical School and co-author of the research. “We’re doing more transplants than we’ve ever done for this reason. More and more people are dying.”
Experts blame extreme drinking patterns for these disquieting health trajectories.
“There is clearly a cultural change where there are more binge drinkers than there were previously,” Tapper said.
Overall, fewer young people are drinking than in previous generations, research has found. But those who do drink more often are going to extremes.
Excessive body weight among young people may also be a factor in rising liver disease. “It is known that obesity compounds the toxicity of alcohol,” Tapper said.
And extremely heavy drinking starts earlier than ever. Studies have found a 33% increase from 2006 to 2014 in alcohol-related emergency department visits by people ages 18 to 24. From 2001 to 2015, there was a 68% jump in alcohol-related hospitalizations in the 21-24 age group, said Aaron White, a senior expert with the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Research suggests significant increases in bingeing among young women, who are more susceptible to some forms of alcohol damage, he said. And emerging findings from surveys about adolescent drinkers suggest many are imbibing alone, White said, trying to self-medicate against feelings of despair.