The pandemic led to a jump in deaths related to alcoholic liver disease.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought about significant changes to people’s lives worldwide. Alongside the fear of the virus itself, lockdowns, isolation, and economic uncertainty left many feeling stressed, anxious, and lonely. It turns out, an alarming consequence was a significant increase in alcohol consumption, leading to a rise in liver disease rates and alcohol-related deaths. One of the most concerning outcomes of this trend was the surge in liver disease deaths, particularly in California. An analysis by KFF Health News found that alcoholic liver disease claimed more lives in the state than car accidents or breast cancer during the pandemic period.
Liver disease is a serious medical condition that affects the liver’s ability to function properly. It encompasses various conditions, including fatty liver disease, hepatitis, cirrhosis, and alcoholic liver disease. Among these, alcoholic liver disease is the most common cause of alcohol-induced deaths nationally. Research has shown that 1 in 10 Americans have some type of liver disease.
Excessive alcohol consumption is the primary factor contributing to alcoholic liver disease. The liver’s role is to filter toxins from the blood, but when alcohol is consumed excessively, the liver has to work overtime to metabolize it. This continuous strain can cause liver cells to become damaged and form scar tissue, leading to cirrhosis—a late-stage liver disease that is irreversible and life-threatening.
Alcoholic liver disease is often asymptomatic until the late stages when symptoms such as weakness, confusion, and jaundice may appear. The disease primarily affects those aged 55 to 74. However, a disturbing trend emerged during the pandemic as death rates doubled among individuals aged 25 to 44.
Researchers, like Jovan Julien, a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard Medical School, noted that many individuals who increased their alcohol consumption during the pandemic were already on the verge of developing severe alcoholic liver disease. The excess alcohol only accelerated the process, leading to premature deaths.
Survivability rates for alcoholic liver disease depend on factors such as early detection, lifestyle changes, and access to medical care. Unfortunately, disparities in access to healthcare have been a significant issue, leading to unequal outcomes for different racial and ethnic groups. CDC data shows that death rates from alcoholic liver disease rose more among Native American, Latino, Asian, and Black Californians during the last decade than non-Latino white Californians.
Researchers, like Brian Lee, a hepatologist and liver transplant specialist with Keck School of Medicine, found a link between alcoholic liver disease and metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is characterized by obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes, often resulting from poor dietary choices and a sedentary lifestyle. Having metabolic syndrome more than doubles the risk of developing advanced liver disease for the same level of drinking.
A study performed by Dr. Elliot Tapper, assistant professor and liver specialist at the University of Michigan and Michigan Medicine confirmed an observation of Brian Lee’s that people begin drinking younger and, as a result, develop obesity earlier in life. “If you [do a] round in an American hospital, then you will find not only is alcohol-related disease markedly overrepresented – the chances that you find someone with an alcohol use disorder are very high simply in the population that’s hospitalized,” he said.
In general, California witnessed a staggering increase in alcoholic liver disease deaths during the pandemic. Despite not having the highest rates of alcohol consumption in the United States, the state was disproportionately affected. This can be attributed to various factors, including the widespread stress and anxiety during the pandemic, which led many to resort to increased alcohol consumption. Rural areas in Eastern and Northern California have been particularly affected, lacking the necessary resources and facilities to address high rates of alcohol use disorder effectively.