Heavy Drinking is Killing More Americans…
Especially More Young Adults

When people become ill or die from a completely preventable cause, that’s a particularly sad event. Right now, Americans are dying in increasing numbers from alcohol-related causes, something that might not happen if, when they were young, they received effective education on the harm that results from drinking heavily.

A mangers drunk and falls asleep on his work.

How serious is the increase? Overall deaths from liver-related illnesses have been increasing dramatically in recent years and loss of life among young adults is growing the fastest. In 1999, only 259 people aged 25 to 34 died from alcohol-related liver disease. By 2016, 767 died from this cause. Those numbers seems small. But here’s why this is important data.

  1. Only a few people are bad off enough to die from this problem. Untold millions of others have damaged their livers, some seriously, but not enough to die from it. We can look at the number of alcohol-related deaths as an indication that more work is needed to save the lives of a small number of people and the health of many, many more.
  2. Any increase in numbers like this indicates that there is a lack of adequate education and preparation for young people approaching the legal drinking age. Because this increase is likely to continue, we can decide now to take action.
  3. According to one study, cirrhosis doesn’t usually show up until a person has been drinking for an average of 17 years. So this new study shows a dangerous new trend for younger people.

Across all age groups, the number of deaths each year from cirrhosis of the liver increased 65% between 1999 and 2016. Liver cancer (carcinoma) deaths also increased. While there are other causes for cirrhosis or liver cancer, excessive alcohol consumption is the most common cause. White Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanic Americans were the hardest hit.

Why Does Alcohol Damage the Liver?

The human liver.

Most people know that the liver filters the blood, removing toxins and breaking them down into substances that are easier to eliminate. The liver first converts alcohol into acetaldehyde which has a toxic, damaging effect on the tissues of the body. The liver will try to break down acetaldehyde quickly into harmless substances but if too much alcohol is consumed, it won’t be able to keep up. Acetaldehyde levels in the body will increase and this chemical will begin to damage liver and other tissues. This chemical will also cause a reddened face for many people, a hangover the next day and a blackout when alcohol use is heavy enough.

When smaller amounts of alcohol are imbibed, the body can keep up with the conversion of acetaldehyde, rendering it into harmless chemicals and preventing severe damage from occurring.

A Little Data about the Liver

Many people may not realize that as the liver becomes more damaged, it become less and less able to filter toxins, produce substances that help the body fight disease or perform its hundreds of other tasks.

There are four stages of liver damage.

  • Stage one is characterized by inflammation which can be accompanied by pain, nausea and vomiting.
  • Stage two is fibrosis, which means that the healthy tissue of the liver has been partially replaced by scar tissue, which more resembles fibers. The liver begins to lose function.
  • Stage three is cirrhosis, permanent and more advanced scarring of the liver tissue. The more scar tissue there is, the less blood will flow through the liver which means that the blood can’t be cleaned and the liver can’t do its many other jobs that support digestion, blood clotting, immunity and production of energy.
  • Stage four can occur after the liver has been losing function for years. This stage may be called End Stage Liver Disease or chronic liver failure. When the liver fails, the only option may be a liver transplant.
  • Liver Cancer is another advanced stage of liver damage resulting from alcohol.

Alcohol-related illnesses and injuries—even including fetal alcohol syndrome—are 100% preventable by not drinking at all or drinking lightly or moderately. If a person knows that damage is occurring and can’t make the decision to stop drinking, then rehabilitation is the choice that can save that person’s life and make his or her future much, much brighter.


Karen Hadley

For more than a decade, Karen has been researching and writing about drug trafficking, drug abuse, addiction and recovery. She has also studied and written about policy issues related to drug treatment.