The number of deaths from liver disease has risen, and young people have been hit the hardest — particularly African Americans.
A recent study examined the number of deaths resulting from cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver, as well as liver cancer. The data for the study originated from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and covered the period from 1999 to 2016.
The analysis revealed that deaths from liver-related illnesses have increased dramatically, and mortality in young people rose the fastest.
Although these illnesses can be caused by several things including obesity and hepatitis C infection, the rise among young Americans was caused by alcohol consumption, according to the study.
The number of 25- to 34-year-olds who died annually from alcohol-related liver disease nearly tripled between 1999 and 2016, from 259 in 1999 to 767 in 2016, an average annual increase of about 10 percent.
“What’s happening to young people is dismaying, to say the least,” Dr. Elliot Tapper, a liver specialist, told NPR.
What’s happening among African Americans and liver disease can be characterized as most startling. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health in Rockville, Maryland, reported that among African Americans, chronic liver disease is a leading cause of death.
While the cause is not always known, some cases can be initiated by conditions such as chronic alcoholism, obesity and exposure to Hepatitis B and C viruses.
In 2015, chronic liver disease was the eighth-leading cause of death for non-Hispanic Blacks ages 45-64. Further, health officials said African-American men are 60 percent more likely to have liver and irritable bowel disease (IBD) cancer than non-Hispanic white men.
African American women are 1.4 times more likely to die from liver and IBD cancer than non-Hispanic White women.
Dr. Patricia Jones of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and her colleagues studied nearly 1,000 patients diagnosed with the most common type of liver cancer, hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC).
“When we looked at a diverse sample of patients being diagnosed with HCC, race was the strongest predictor of survival,” Jones told NBC News.
Black patients usually had bigger tumors, indicating they were being diagnosed later, Jones said. And that makes them less eligible for a liver transplant, which often can cure liver cancer.
Jones and her colleagues found that liver transplants reduced death by 66 percent, but only 12 percent of Black patients received a transplant.
They also reported the average survival after diagnosis was 301 days for Black patients, compared to 534 days for white patients and 437 days for Hispanics.
According to Jones, possible causes for these differences include less access to care, lower rates of health insurance and higher rates of hepatitis B, a virus that is a leading cause of liver cancer.
Jones and her team did not find any evidence that the racial disparities could be attributed to racial bias — for instance no patients were treated differently in terms of their care based on race.
Because there are often no early symptoms of liver disease that raises the risk for cancer, Dr. Gia Tyson, a liver specialist at the Ochsner Multi-Organ Transplant Institute in New Orleans, said there are four questions every person should ask themselves to determine their risk.
“Was I born between 1945 and 1965 — because the CDC recommends anyone born during this time period be tested for hepatitis? Do I have hepatitis? Am I obese? And do I drink heavily, or have I ever been IV drug user?” she said.
If the answer is yes to any of these questions, Tyson recommends talking to a doctor about the next steps which may include blood tests, ultrasounds and regular screenings.
“It’s vital,” she said.