Experts are warning of a potential public health crisis fueled by binge-drinking millennials.
Debilitating liver disease is a potential long-term consequence. Excess drinking can also eventually cause damage to the pancreas, heart, and brain.
“If we don’t address this public health problem early, then 10, 15, or 20 years from now we’re going to see many people with end-stage liver disease due to alcohol,” Dr. Robert Wong, a liver specialist and assistant clinical professor at Highland Hospital in Oakland, California, told Healthline. “It could be a huge economic burden for the U.S.”
Dr. Elliot Tapper, a liver specialist and assistant professor at the University of Michigan, agrees that the effects of today’s binge drinking could cause an array of problems in the future.
“I don’t think we have any sense of what the total impact on public health would be. You can measure it in dollars and quality of life,” Tapper told Healthline. “There’s going to be a giant hole in the middle of our society caused by the damage due to alcohol.”
They believe binge drinking among young people is a big part of the problem.
“We broke down our data by age, gender, and race ethnicity. Definitely one signal we saw was that the young population, in their 20s to 40s, had a very high prevalence of alcoholic fatty liver,” he said.
“When you see this day after day, it triggered us to ask how big this problem is, both here in the community and in the U.S.,” he added.
Tapper says what he’s seeing in young people is also alarming.
“The kind of person we’re taking care of now is much younger than it was when we were in training or what you’d expect from a textbook,” he said. “Every other room will have someone in their 20s or 30s who’s dying of liver failure.”
Last year, Tapper and his team released
They found the biggest increase in alcoholic cirrhosis deaths was among younger people ages 25 to 34. This group largely included white, Native American, and Hispanic people.
The states with the worst cirrhosis mortality numbers? Kentucky, New Mexico, and Arkansas.
The state where these statistics are most improving? Maryland.
Tapper says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines binge drinking as more than five drinks in a few hours.
He suspects millennials may be drinking hard liquor and more of it.
“My suspicion is both the concentration of alcohol in the drinks that people are having and the amount that people are drinking has changed,” he added.
A report earlier this year revealed that alcoholic liver disease is now the leading cause of liver transplants.
This is creating a backlog on transplant lists.
“Every year, thousands of people who are waiting for transplants either die while waiting or become too sick and lose their eligibility,” Wong said.
“Not everyone is going to die. Not everyone is going to need a transplant,” Tapper said. “There are many people who are going to live with permanent liver damage, and their lives will be shortened.”
And it’s not just the liver that binge drinking can damage.
“Unhealthy alcohol use can cause systemic problems. It can lead to pancreatitis,” Wong said. “Long-term chronic use can affect the brain and lead to cognitive deficits.”
“It can affect blood sugar or insulin levels and might lead to diabetes. It can affect the lining of the esophagus and stomach, which could lead to ulcers and bleeding,” he added.
“And alcohol can damage the heart muscle,” Tapper said. “Heart failure or heart rhythm problems can occur.”
Both Tapper and Wong say there’s time to fix the problem.
“One of the messages we were hoping to raise with this study is that there needs to be greater awareness about how serious and prevalent unhealthy alcohol use is,” Wong said.
“The lucky thing here is that severe permanent damage takes many years to develop,” he added. “The importance of identifying it early is that if you eliminate alcohol, the liver does have regenerative capabilities.”
“If these young people stop drinking and take good care of themselves, their livers can heal,” Tapper said. “I’ve witnessed several people stop drinking and return to work, get married, have children, and take care of their children.”
Wong suggests public health messaging to target millennials. And he says doctors play a crucial role.
“We need to be very frank when asking detailed questions so we can identify who’s at risk and offer services,” he said.
“If it’s addressed early, many people won’t develop long-term damage,” he added. “That’s the key from a public health standpoint.”