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Gillian May

Can Younger People Get Alcoholic Liver Disease?

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Gillian May
Gillian May
 2021-05-16

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As a former nurse and recovering alcoholic, I am committed to educating the public around alcoholism, particularly alcoholic liver disease (ALD). I am passionate in using my skills and experience to inform others, especially since the education about alcoholism and ALD is not widespread. I also lost my father five years ago to alcoholic liver disease (ALD), which makes this topic even more important to me. .

For a while, I thought that only older people are at risk for ALD simply because age is often a factor in how well the liver can do its job. As we age, so do our organs, which puts us at greater risk for damage from the things we eat, drink or consume. However, I read a recent article about how ALD is beginning to affect our young people. I was shocked and wanted to do more research to dive into this issue better.

Indeed, research is showing an increase in ALD amongst younger people over the last two decades. Between 2009–2016, young people 25–34 years of age had the highest annual increases in ALD-related health issues. Unfortunately, these health issues only got worse over the last decade and particularly during the pandemic. Dr. Jessica Mellinger from the University of Michigan has seen a 30% increase in cases of ALD since the start of the pandemic, particularly amongst people in their 20s and 30s.

It’s important to note that amongst young people with ALD, a significant proportion of those cases are women, Native Americans, White, and Hispanic people. It’s likely no coincidence that some of the most oppressed members of the population are drinking at higher levels, especially with the pandemic fueling severe economic downturns.

For young people, who are only trying to gain a foothold into their future, the past year has been particularly stressful. Many turn to alcohol to cope, which is prompting some devastating consequences for their health and wellbeing.

The problem is, we talk about how dangerous alcohol is for the liver, but until people understand the risk factors for ALD, they can’t be expected to prevent this obscure and complex condition. Since young people are just trying to sort out their lives amongst increasing external pressures, it may be difficult for them to handle their blooming addictions, never mind learning more about the risks for their liver.

Navigating addictions is even more challenging for young people outside of the dominant white male cis-heterosexual population. Research shows that, in part, this is due to the link between alcoholism and severe trauma amongst marginalized groups. Many people outside of the dominant cohort have experienced trauma either in childhood or ongoing. The sheer stress of living every day with gender and racial biases is enough to drive addictions. But with the pandemic, the pressure has increased drastically. These issues affect all age groups but young people may feel them more acutely as they’re are just entering into the economy and work force.

Not every young person is at risk for liver issues if they drink. There are a few factors that we will discuss below that increase the risk for the younger population.

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Volume of Alcohol

For liver problems to take place, there is usually a significant increase in the volume of alcohol consumed. Behaviors like frequent heavy drinking or binge drinking are usually present for young people with liver issues.

A study published in 2015 shows a major rise in the incidences of binge drinking among many age groups with young people showing the highest increases. This is particularly true for young women who seem to be catching up to men in their drinking frequencies. A more recent report in 2019 by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism shows that over 90% of all alcohol use patterns for youth aged 12 to 20 years old are in the range of binge-drinking.

Since younger people are more likely to take risks, they are also more likely to drink past the safe drinking recommendations and veer into binge drinking. Binge drinking can have very serious consequences for any age group. However, since young people are more likely to binge drink, they’re also more likely to suffer health consequences such as alcohol poisoning, problems with brain development, accidents, mental health issues, and damage to organs including the liver.

Other Health Conditions

As with any age group, liver disease is more likely to happen for people who drink heavily while also having other health conditions. This is also true for young people. Conditions such as obesity, diabetes, mental illness, and metabolic issuesare beginning to creep up in young people. These increases are happening simultaneously with increases in alcohol consumption.

Unfortunately, combining health conditions with alcohol has serious effects on the organs, including the liver. Also, combining health-reated medications and alcohol can have dire effects on the liver as well. Young people who engage in risky drinking and who also have health problems may be setting themselves up for liver problems much sooner.

Mental Health Conditions

Unfortunately, young people are already at risk for mental health issues. Research is showing that mental illness is increasing across the globe but young people are especially vulnerable. What many young people don’t realize (and the general population too) is that alcohol drastically increases the risk for mental health issues. In fact, a high proportion of people with mental illness also abuse alcohol as a form of self-medication.

It seems that the combination of alcohol and mental health issues makes a young person ripe for substance-related health consequences. The more that a young person drinks, the more they exacerbate mental health issues, which may then lead to more drinking. This circular pattern of increased drinking may be contributing to the increases in liver related complications in youth.

It should also be mentioned that most mental health related medications should not be mixed with alcohol as these medications are metabolized by the liver. Mixing alcohol with medications processed by the liver can put extreme stress on the organ. Even one severe episode of binge-drinking can combine with medications to create health disasters.

Trauma

The prevalence of trauma is becoming more widespread in the general population. However, young people with a history of trauma have a much higher risk of developing a substance abuse problem like alcoholism. Unravelling trauma is hard at any age group but for young people, who are just learning about themselves, the effects of trauma can be more pronounced.

Young women are particularly vulnerable as they have a higher incidence of sexual violence trauma than young men. Indeed, the research is showing major increases in binge-drinking among young women. As such, we are also seeing increases in liver issues among young women as well.

In Summary

Heavy drinking and binge-drinking is increasing at startling rates among young people. Many factors contribute to why young people choose to drink heavily as we discussed above. Unfortunately, research is showing a connection between heavy drinking and liver problems amongst youth. Although the rates of liver problems amongst youth are still lower than older people, there is still a disturbing trend in new cases that just weren’t there in previous decades.

For young people who drink lightly or moderately, there’s likely little risk to their liver. However, the presence of mental health and health issues combined with medication intake may also play a part in liver-related health outcomes for youth even if they’re only drinking moderately.

Since binge-drinking has sharply risen in young people, it’s no wonder that there are consequences, But it seems to be correlated with the presence of other issues such as health conditions, medication-intake, trauma, and mental illness. The key is to educate young people so they can make proper decisions about their health and alcohol intake.

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