By Jamie Ducharme
July 21, 2018
TIME Health
For more, visit TIME Health.

Liver disease deaths are growing more common in the U.S. and disproportionately affecting younger Americans, according to a recent study.

The paper, published in The BMJ just a day after a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report on rising liver cancer death rates, paints a troubling picture of how Americans’ drinking habits may be affecting their health. While the new study couldn’t prove causation, the researchers say drinking is likely to blame for the growing number of adults aged 24 to 35 who are dying from cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver.

The researchers used deaths logged in the CDC’s WONDER database between 1999 and 2016 to determine mortality trends during those 17 years. During that time period, more than 34,000 people died of cirrhosis, accounting for a 65% increase over the study period. Rates of hepatocellular carcinoma, the most common form of liver cancer, also doubled, with more than 11,000 people dying of the disease.

Although nearly every demographic saw increases in cirrhosis beginning in 2009, after a period of decline from 1999 to 2008, the trends were particularly stark among certain demographics.

Younger Americans, for example, saw the largest increase in their cirrhosis death rate (10.5%), even though older age groups still experience more deaths overall. Cirrhosis now accounts for about 1.4% of deaths in the 24-35 age group, largely driven by this population’s drinking habits, according to the paper.

A separate study published this week found that younger adults are at particularly high risk of starting and sustaining problem drinking habits. And The BMJ study’s authors note that the cirrhosis mortality trend’s start in 2009 — just after the 2008 financial crisis — is in line with research that has found young men to be particularly susceptible to alcohol misuse after unemployment or financial strain.

Native Americans, white Americans and Hispanic Americans have also seen significant increases in liver disease death rates since 1999, the paper says. Geographically, cirrhosis is growing particularly common in Kentucky, New Mexico, Arkansas, Indiana and Alabama.

Liver cancer, meanwhile, is on the decline among younger Americans, and on the rise among those in older age groups, according to the study — a finding consistent with the CDC’s recent report. Liver cancer deaths were most common among Asians and Pacific Islanders, but that group was also the only one to see a slight dip in its death rate during the study period.

The two recent reports add to a growing body of evidence that Americans’ drinking habits have grown increasingly problematic in recent years. A March CDC report, for example, found that 17% of the U.S. population binge drinks, and a February editorial also published in The BMJ blamed alcohol misuse, along with drugs and suicide, for a recent drop in U.S. life expectancy.

“The increasing mortality due to cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma speak to the expanding socioeconomic impact of liver disease,” the BMJ authors write. “Adverse trends in liver related mortality are particularly unfortunate given that in most cases the liver disease is preventable.”

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