Rising Number of Young People Dying After Heavy Drinking

Marcia Frellick

February 18, 2020

MAUI, Hawaii — Alcohol use and deaths related to alcohol-use disorders are increasing, and young adults might be the group to watch, said Norah Terrault, MD, MPH, professor at the Keck School of Medicine of USC in Los Angeles.

"A lot of young people are drinking large amounts and they don't know they're at risk. They may not drink much during the week but then drink 30 drinks on the weekend," Terrault told Medscape Medical News.

The largest relative increase in deaths from alcoholic cirrhosis — 10.5% from 2009 to 2016 — was in the 25- to 34-year age group, she reported here at the Gastroenterology Updates IBD Liver Disease Conference 2020.

This highlights the importance of asking for details about alcohol use during primary care visits; not only how much, but also what time of day, for instance, she explained.

Terrault's team at Keck is part of the ACCELERATE-AH consortium, a group of 12 transplant centers looking at patterns of alcohol use before and after liver transplantation.

In their retrospective study of 147 consecutive transplant patients from 2006 to 2018, they found that young age, a history of multiple rehab attempts, and overt encephalopathy at time of transplantation were predictors of alcohol use after the procedure.

Corticosteroids remain the only proven therapy for alcoholic hepatitis. "We have not seen a new therapy in this arena in decades," said Terrault. "We really have nothing to offer these patients, yet it's an incredibly common presentation with a high mortality."

More Treatment Options

The good news is that some phase 2 data look promising for new therapies, she reported.

"Some of them are targeting injury and regeneration primarily. Others are looking at the anti-inflammatory and antifibrotic effects. Some are also looking at how gut permeability and the microbiome are influencing outcomes," she explained.

Transplantation has become very important for patients who do not respond to current therapy, and selection criteria have evolved over the years to take this into account, she pointed out.

In the early 1980s, alcoholic hepatitis was considered an inappropriate indication for liver transplantation. In the early 2000s, the guidance moved to setting 6 months of alcohol abstinence as a criterion for transplantation. The 6-month rule effectively eliminated patients with severe alcoholic hepatitis, who, by the time they needed a new liver, would not have 6 months to live.

Recently, guidelines have added the option of transplantation for patients with alcoholic hepatitis. The option was always there for people who developed alcohol cirrhosis or liver cancer, but now alcoholic hepatitis is recognized as a potential indication for transplantation, Terrault explained.

Today, transplant centers are moving away from the 6-month rule for two main reasons, she said. One is that few data support the 6-month time period as the duration that makes a difference.

"There is nothing magical about 6 months vs 3 months or 12 months," she said, adding that studies have shown that other factors might be better indicators, such as family support and whether the person is employed.

Second, recent studies have shown that rates of 3-year survival are similar in people who did not abstain at all before the procedure and those who undergo transplantation for other reasons.

The ACCELERATE-AH consortium also found that 70% of patients with severe alcoholic hepatitis remained abstinent up to 3 years after transplantation.

Anytime we give an organ to anyone on the list, someone else may die without one. Every year, 20% of patients on the list die without a transplant.

The selection process remains complicated and controversial, Terrault acknowledged.

"Anytime we give an organ to anyone on the list, someone else may die without one. Every year, 20% of patients on the list die without a transplant," she said.

And there is concern that because patients with severe alcoholic hepatitis present with severe illness, they get moved to the top of the wait list. The rationale for that, she explained, is that it is done that way in other acute situations.

"We transplant individuals who have an acetaminophen overdose, for example. That's common in many programs," she said.

"My issue is that some patients with acute alcoholic hepatitis that have a very high severity score, but some of them, just with abstinence, will get better," said Guadalupe Garcia-Tsao, MD, professor of medicine at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

There are cases in which acute alcoholic hepatitis will resolve with abstinence, "and patients can return to an entirely compensated state of cirrhosis, in which they are entirely asymptomatic and they can live," she told Medscape Medical News.

But it's hard to know without a control group which patients would have that kind of success with just abstinence, she acknowledged.

Terrault said she agreed, and added that "our tools are not that good," so determining which patients can be "pulled back from the brink" without transplantation is a challenge.

"There's still a lot to learn about how we do this, and how we do it well," she said.

Alcoholic hepatitis as an indication for liver transplantation is rare — less than 1% — but growing.

"This is a potential therapy for your patient who is sick in the ICU with a high severity of disease who has failed steroids. We should call out to see if there's a transplant program that might be willing to evaluate them," she said.

Gastroenterology Updates IBD Liver Disease (GUILD) Conference 2020. Presented February 17, 2020.

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