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Alcoholic Liver Damage Is Causing Early Deaths for Americans

Turning Point

Life Expectancy Is Falling in the U.S., and Alcohol Is Partial to Blame

For 3 years in a row, Americans’ life expectancy fell from its 2014 high of 78.9 years.  The most recent data collected (from 2017) showed average longevity of only 78.6 years.  The drop may not seem like a big deal, but for a country with the highest healthcare spending in the world, any decline should be unthinkable.  Researchers have previously linked alcohol and substance use to worsening health in the U.S., but new data show exactly how alcohol use is implicated. 

The Dangers of Alcohol-Related Liver Disease

Since 2006, death rates from alcohol-related liver disease (ARLD/ALD) have been increasing.  2017 saw the highest mortality numbers in that period; 13.1 of every 100,000 deaths among men were ALD-related, as were 5.6 of every 100,000 deaths among women.  In fact, 2017’s numbers are the highest overall, surpassing those recorded in 1999.

Increases in ALD incidence have impacted almost every demographic.  Data from 2017 show middle-aged Native Americans from rural areas are most at risk of dying from ALD.  When looking at trends over the past few years, researchers have found the biggest increase in mortality rates among:

  • Native American women
  • Non-Hispanic white men
  • Non-Hispanic white women

The alcohol-related liver disease leads to more deaths than any other chronic alcohol-related condition.  The more one drinks, the more likely they are to sustain liver damage—but no matter their situation, lifestyle changes can make a difference.

How Does Alcohol Affect Your Liver?  

Heavy alcohol use and binge drinking can both harm liver function.  Up to a certain point, this damage is reversible.  However, years of heavy drinking causes permanent scarring that increases a patient’s risk of death by liver disease, liver failure, or liver cancer.  Alcohol is a poison to our bodies, so liver cells die in the process of removing it from our blood.  Prolonged use can also affect a person’s ability to reproduce, resulting in permanent changes to the organ.

Fatty Liver Disease

Fatty liver disease, also called hepatic steatosis, can have both alcoholic and non-alcoholic causes.  Among heavy drinkers, the condition can develop in just a few days.  Damaged liver cells have a harder time breaking down lipids, so they start to store the fat they can’t process.  In short periods, this doesn’t cause serious harm; most people won’t even know they have fatty liver disease because it typically does not cause symptoms.  However, scientists believe the condition may make your liver more susceptible to damage from other sources.  It is also the first step toward developing ALD.   

Alcoholic Steatohepatitis, or Alcoholic Hepatitis

When the liver is forced to store excess fat for a long time, the burden may deform cells.  As their function continues to degrade, patients progress to alcoholic steatohepatitis or ASH.  Though half of the alcohol users with the fatty liver disease never develop ASH, those who do should take it as an important warning sign.

  • Jaundice
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fever
  • Fatigue and weakness

ASH is a sign your liver has suffered irreversible damage—when regular tissue is replaced by scar tissue, it loses some of its function.  Patients can give up alcohol to avoid further harm to liver cells.

Cirrhosis

To counteract the damage from fatty liver disease, the scar tissue that develops has an altered structure that cannot hold on to lipids.  Unfortunately, this makes it less capable of performing its job as a whole.  Someone whose liver has extensive scarring will be diagnosed with cirrhosis. 

Cirrhosis refers to a liver that is stiff and swollen and barely functional.  This final stage of liver disease can cause the same symptoms as ASH, along with:

  • Muscle atrophy
  • Easy bruising
  • Leg and/or abdominal swelling
  • Bleeding in the mouth
  • Vomiting blood
  • Erythema of the palms
  • Decrease in mental function (forgetfulness, trouble concentrating, etc.)

Lifestyle changes increase a patient’s chance of successful cirrhosis treatment.  Someone who has been drinking enough alcohol to cause this condition is likely dependent on or addicted to the substance and will need professional support to curb their habit.  Patients who continue drinking after being diagnosed with cirrhosis are more likely than not to die within the next 5 years. 

Another Risk of Liver Damage: Cancer

Each time liver cells are damaged, they are replaced, but this process isn’t without risks.  Studies of cirrhosis show a clear link between the condition and liver cancer.  The cause is not entirely known, but scientists think it’s simply a matter of volume.  The more cells reproduce, the more likely one of them is to mutate in harmful, potentially cancerous ways.  Any recurring harm to the liver increases a patient’s risk of cancer, so heavy drinkers should be aware of the risk.

Finding the Alcohol Detox and Addiction Treatment You Need

Alcohol use disorders can have a variety of impacts on mental and physical health, as well as one’s ability to fulfill necessary obligations.  It’s also hard to watch someone you love struggle with the burden of addiction and the related health issues.  No matter someone’s condition, recovery is in reach with the right support.

Turning Point offers an accredited monitored detox program and residential and outpatient treatment for alcohol addiction.  Having access to holistic and caring support is the first step in rebuilding a healthy and happy life.

Contact our admissions team today at (973) 380-0905 if you’re looking for an alcohol addiction treatment program. 

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