Gastric Bypass Increases Risk for New-Onset Alcohol Abuse

Steven Fox

October 10, 2011

October 10, 2011 (Orlando, Florida) — Roux-en-Y gastric bypass (RYGB) surgery is associated with an increased risk of developing new-onset alcohol abuse, according to findings presented here from a study of 340 patients who underwent the procedure in Boston, Massachusetts.

The poster was presented at Obesity 2011: The Obesity Society's 29th Annual Scientific Meeting.

"Our data underscore the need for asking patients during their preop evaluation about their use of alcohol, and again when following up after surgery," presenter Stephanie Sogg, PhD, told Medscape Medical News. Dr. Sogg is a clinical staff psychologist at the Massachusetts General Hospital Weight Center in Boston.

Dr. Sogg said that several years ago she began hearing from patients that not only was alcohol having a far greater effect on them after surgery than before, but also that some were developing full-blown alcoholism after surgery — even if they had never had a previous problem with drinking.

And what was most intriguing, Dr. Sogg said, was that many of the people who were becoming alcoholics were middle-aged. That is long after most people begin to have alcohol-related problems. Data from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism indicate that the mean age of onset of alcohol abuse is 22 years.

"Although there's not much in the literature on the subject of alcohol abuse following Roux-en-Y surgery, there's quite a lot of discussion among weight loss specialists — anecdotal evidence — that this is a problem," she said.

To find out more about a possible link, Dr. Sogg and her colleagues conducted telephone interviews with 340 patients who had undergone RYGB surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. All procedures had been carried out at least 18 months before the survey.

About three quarters of the patients were female, and 91% were white. Mean age at the time of surgery was 46 years, and the mean time since surgery was 57 months.

Surveyors asked patients to quantify their preoperative and postoperative alcohol intake. Patients were also asked about how alcohol affected them both before and after surgery.

"We decided to ask about quantity and frequency rather than specific symptoms of alcohol abuse," Dr. Sogg said. "That’s because we felt patients would be more comfortable reporting quantitative data rather than answering more subjective questions about their drinking."

More than two thirds of participants said they were affected more by alcohol after surgery than before, she said.

Problem drinking was defined as consuming at least 3 drinks per day on at least 4 days per week, or having 5 or more drinks on at least 2 days per month.

"We found a significant increase in risk of new-onset postsurgical alcohol abuse among these patients," Dr. Sogg said.

They defined "remote" problem drinking as problem drinking that had ceased more than 6 months before surgery. If patients were having drinking problems within the 6 months before surgery, that was defined as "immediate" problem drinking, Dr. Sogg explained.

About 21% of participants reported having drinking problems at some point before surgery. In all, 15% reported a remote history and 6.5% reported having an immediate problem.

Approximately 9% of participants reported a period of problem drinking after their surgery. Problem drinking after surgery was associated with younger age (P = .040), longer time since surgery (P = .001), and a higher baseline body mass index (P = .049).

"Drinking problems within 6 months prior to surgery strongly predicted problem drinking after surgery," Dr. Sogg said. The odds ratio was 6.59 (P = .0005).

However, a remote history of problem drinking was not associated with having drinking problems after surgery (odds ratio, 1.01; P = .99), she noted.

Of particular note, Dr. Sogg said, was that 7% of patients surveyed reported new-onset problem drinking after RYGB.

However, no clinical or demographic variables were identified as predictors of new-onset drinking problems.

"In the population as a whole about 90% of alcohol problems develop before the mid-30s," Dr. Sogg said. "The mean age of our sample was 46. So it's troubling to find how relatively common new-onset alcohol problems were in this population of patients."

Another observation Dr. Sogg said she has made over the years — but didn’t include in the present study — is how quickly drinking problems seem to progress in post-surgery patients. "Alcohol abuse is usually a gradual-onset problem, but in many of our patients who develop drinking problems, it seems to rapidly ramp up, escalating very quickly."

On the basis of her study results, Dr. Sogg said clinicians need to increase their focus on the potential of alcohol-related RYGB complications. "That means better patient education, better screening, and better efforts at prevention, both before and after surgery," she said.

"I think what this study clearly tells us is that alcohol can be a problem after surgery for some of these patients. And we especially need to watch people who had problems with drinking up to the time of surgery," said Leslie Heinberg, PhD, director of behavioral sciences at the Bariatric and Metabolic Institute, Cleveland Clinic, Ohio, in an interview with Medscape Medical News.

She emphasized, however, that patients in the study who reported a remote history of alcohol problems before surgery were not at increased risk for postoperative drinking problems.

Dr. Heinberg, who is also associate professor at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine, said that in their program she and her colleagues are very careful to counsel all their patients about the physiologic changes that take place during surgery and how those changes will make patients permanently more susceptible to alcohol.

"We make sure they understand that if increased susceptibility is something that’s likely to create problems for them, they might want to reconsider having the surgery," she said.

Dr. Sogg and Dr. Heinberg have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Obesity 2011: The Obesity Society 29th Annual Scientific Meeting; Abstract #21-OR. Presented October 5, 2011.