Reality Show Death Spotlights Cirrhosis Risk

The good news is that cirrhosis as a cause of death has declined steadily in the United States in most age groups for at least the past three decades, according to statistics from the NIH. And deaths among the youngest age group studied — from 25 to 34 years — are the lowest among any age group. In 2004, for example, fewer than 1 out of every 100,000 people in this age group died from cirrhosis.

But current research suggests a lingering danger. According to statistics from the NIH's National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse, as many as 10 percent of eighth graders, 20 percent of 10th graders and 30 percent of 12th graders binge drink — a behavior that could put them at future risk of the illness.

And in the U.K., at least, health experts are seeing a resurgence of this problem. In March 2006, the British Society of Gastroenterology issued a statement suggesting that the drinking habits of the young could be bringing about a wave of new cirrhosis cases.

"Already, we have seen a 350 percent increase in cirrhosis between 1970 and 1998, and this figure is 900 percent for those under 45 years of age," the statement reads.

When Intervention Comes Too Late

Of course, cirrhosis isn't the only major risk of alcoholism that should have younger drinkers concerned.

"Young people do not worry enough about this or any of the other major health problems that alcohol causes," Berger says. "Heavy drinking reduces the life span, on the average, by about 15 years through heart attacks, strokes, various cancers, gastrointestinal problems, brain, heart muscle, and peripheral nerve damage."

To avoid this downward spiral, professional intervention should come as soon as possible. And Pace says that the best intervention leaves no room for falling off the wagon.

"It is important that a patient like Lawrence be told that they have a medical disease that their liver no longer can metabolize alcohol in a normal manner," he says, "that their liver has become allergic to alcohol, that they have to stop drinking completely under medical supervision and get into an extensive counseling program which would include [Alcoholics Anonymous] — if they want to survive."

Dr. Teré Dickson contributed to this article.

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