Scientists have yet to reach a consensus on how alcohol impacts certain parts of our bodies. They’re not sure if it helps or hurts the brain; they’re conflicted about whether it reduces or heightens the risk of heart disease. But there’s one part of the body that scientists have found alcohol to indisputably — and irreversibly — harm: the liver.
According to a recent study from the BMJ, the damage it inflicts on the liver is fueling a spike in deaths from liver disease and liver cancer. The conclusion comes from researchers at the University of Michigan who analyzed death certificates and vital statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In that sample, they found a doubling in deaths from liver cancer and a 65 percent increase in deaths from cirrhosis from 1999 to 2016.
Cirrhosis, according to the Mayo Clinic, is a “late-stage scarring of the liver” that’s promulgated by diseases like hepatitis C or alcoholism. According to the American Cancer Society, most of the 42,000 people diagnosed with liver cancer each year have “some evidence” of cirrhosis. Although alcohol is not the only thing contributing to the increase in deaths, researchers found it to be the leading one.
“Driven by deaths due to alcoholic cirrhosis, people aged 25-34 have experienced the greatest relative increase in mortality,” the researchers write. “The rapid increase in death rates among young people due to alcohol highlight new challenges for optimal care of patients with preventable liver disease.”
Alcohol abuse has long been a problem in the United States, but recent studies have shown that it’s increasing among women and people of color. According to a 2017 study in JAMA Psychiatry, the number of people engaging in “high-risk drinking” in America — defined as four or more drinks in one sitting for women and five or more for men — rose by nearly 30 percent from 2002 to 2013. The problem is now so prevalent the researchers suggest public officials declare it a “public health crisis.”
According to an expert from the CDC who spoke with National Public Radio, women who consume eight drinks or more a week are considered “excessive drinkers,” and men who consume 15 or more are too. Being an excessive drinker isn’t the same as being physically dependent on alcohol (an alcoholic), but drinking to excess carries myriad risks — chief among them liver disease.
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