Cirrhosis of the Liver Threatens Heavy Drinkers

The Damage Cannot be Reversed

Alcoholic liver disease, artwork
Alcoholism and Cirrhosis of the Liver. SCIEPRO / Getty Images

One of the largest threats to the health of chronic heavy drinkers is the damage that long-time drinking can do to their liver. This can cause cirrhosis, also known as alcoholic liver disease.

Normal liver function is essential to life. The liver performs more than 300 life-saving functions, without which the body's systems will simply shut down. Alcohol attacks the liver by blocking the normal metabolism of protein, fats, and carbohydrates.

  • In the United States, cirrhosis is the seventh leading cause of death among young and middle-age adults.
  • Approximately 10,000 to 24,000 deaths from cirrhosis may be attributable to alcohol consumption each year, according to the National Institutes of Health.
  • Approximately 10 to 35 percent of heavy drinkers develop alcoholic hepatitis, and 10 to 20 percent develop cirrhosis.

Cirrhosis Can Develop Very Rapidly in Some

Usually, alcoholic cirrhosis develops after more than a decade of heavy drinking, but that is not always the case. Due to genetic factors, some heavy drinkers can develop cirrhosis much sooner. That is because some people have livers that are much more sensitive to alcohol.

Likewise, the amount of alcohol that can injure the liver varies greatly from person to person. In women, as few as two to three drinks per day have been linked with cirrhosis and in men, it is as few as three to four drinks per day.

High Rates of Drinking and Rates of Cirrhosis

However, studies have found that mortality rates from alcohol liver disease rates are higher in areas where there are fewer policies regulating alcohol. It's also higher in areas with a greater number of American Indians and Alaska Natives.

In other words, in regions and groups in which alcohol consumption is heavy, death rates from cirrhosis are also increased.

Loss of Liver Function Is Fatal

A damaged liver cannot remove toxins from the blood. This causes them to accumulate in the blood and eventually the brain. There, toxins can dull mental functioning and cause personality changes, coma, and even death.

Loss of liver function affects the body in many ways. One of the well-known symptoms of cirrhosis is jaundice, which causes a yellowing of the skin and eyes. Generally, by the time jaundice develops, the liver has been severely damaged

It Cannot Be Reversed

Liver damage from cirrhosis cannot be reversed, but treatment can stop or delay further progression and reduce complications. If the cirrhosis is caused by long-term heavy drinking, the treatment is simply to abstain from any further alcohol. A healthy diet and avoiding alcohol are essential because the body needs all the nutrients it can get. Alcohol will only lead to more liver damage.

Doctors can treat other complications caused by the cirrhosis, but the damage done by heavy drinking cannot be undone. When complications cannot be controlled or when the liver becomes so damaged from scarring that it completely stops functioning, a liver transplant may be the only remaining alternative.

Even if a liver donor is found and a transplant accomplished, that is still not a 100 percent guaranteed cure.

Although survival rates have improved greatly for liver transplant patients in recent years, 10 to 20 percent do not survive the transplant surgery.

Sources:

Anstee QM, et al. Genetics of Alcoholic Liver Disease. Seminars in Liver Disease. 2015.

Hadland SE, et al. Alcohol Policies and Alcoholic Cirrhosis Mortality in the United States. Preventing Chronic Disease. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2015.

Younossi Z, et al. Contribution of Alcoholic and Non-alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease to the Burden of Liver-related Morbidity and Mortality. Gastroenterology. 2016;150(8):1778-85.

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