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Deaths from liver disease are surging, and drinking is to blame

It doesn't take many years of drinking to permanently damage the liver, doctors say.
by Maggie Fox /
Image: Cocktail being poured at a bar.
A new study finds alcohol-related liver deaths have skyrocketed among young adults.Cdrin / Shutterstock / cdrin

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Deaths from liver disease have risen sharply in the U.S., and doctors say the biggest factor is drinking —especially among young adults.

A study published Wednesday found a 65 percent increase in deaths from cirrhosis of the liver since 1999. The biggest increase is among millennials: the team found that deaths from cirrhosis are rising 10 percent a year among people aged 25 to 34.

People so young might not even realize that they can drink themselves to death so quickly, but they can, said liver specialist Dr. Haripriya Maddur of Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

“Surprisingly, it only takes about 10 years of heavy drinking to actually lead to cirrhosis,” said Maddur, who was not involved in the study.

“So when people start drinking in college and they start binge drinking, that can actually lead to end-stage liver disease at a much earlier age,” Maddur told NBC News.

“A lot of my patients will say, ‘Oh I don't drink every day,’ but they're binge drinking."

For the study, Dr. Elliot Tapper and Dr. Neehar Parikh at the University of Michigan and the Veterans Affairs hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan, looked at federal data taken from death certificates and the U.S. Census Bureau.

“From 1999 to 2016 in the U.S., annual deaths from cirrhosis increased by 65 percent, to 34,174, while annual deaths from hepatocellular carcinoma (liver cancer) doubled to 11,073,” they wrote in their report, published in the British Medical Journal.

Earlier this week, the National Center for Health Statistics reported a 43 percent increase in death rates from liver cancer between 2000 and 2015. The increase made liver cancer the sixth-leading cause of cancer death in 2016, up from the ninth-leading cause in 2000.

The biggest increase was among baby boomers, people aged 55 to 64. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says hepatitis B and C are most likely a major cause of liver cancer in this older age group.

“Unfortunately, many people are unaware they are infected with viral hepatitis since the disease often causes no symptoms,” the CDC says. “For reasons that are not entirely understood, people born from 1945 to 1965 are five times more likely to have hepatitis C than other age groups.”

There’s a vaccine to prevent hepatitis B, and drugs can cure most cases of hepatitis C.

Obesity and drinking too much alcohol can also cause liver cancer, as well as liver cirrhosis, and those two factors seem to be driving the rise in deaths among younger adults.

“I think it's because millennials are drinking more, and they're drinking different types of liquor that is actually harder and more potent,” Maddur said.

One 2013 study found that even one drink a day raises a person’s risk of dying from cancer — not just liver cancer, but also breast cancer and cancers of the mouth and throat.

“A lot of my patients will say, ‘Oh I don't drink every day,’ but they're binge drinking, which is just as bad, if not worse, for the liver,” Maddur said.

The CDC defines binge drinking as downing five or more standard drinks in a couple of hours for a man, or four for a woman.

People really need to take it easy on the alcohol, Maddur said.

“So, for a woman, no more than one alcoholic drink in a day and for a man no more than two drinks in a day is safe,” she said. “Anything exceeding that can actually lead to end-stage liver disease.”

The federal government has been cautioning about the dangers of alcohol for years. Tapper and Parikh said it may take more action to discourage boozing.

“In this regard, forthcoming data from Scotland will prove instructive,” they wrote. There, officials have mandated a minimum price for alcoholic beverages in the hope of reducing consumption.

Scotland’s alcohol consumption is among the highest in the world, according to World Health Organization data.

“The impact of this program on Scottish public health should be eagerly awaited by American policy makers, Tapper and Parikh wrote.

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