Can a Young Person Get Cirrhosis? Liver Disease in Young Adults

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When people think of alcohol-related liver disease, they often picture an older adult with several decades of drinking behind them. But while it’s true that alcoholic liver disease is more common in older people, younger adults aren’t immune. In fact, cirrhosis of the liver has been on the rise among young people for some time.

So, if you drink alcohol in your 20s or 30s, are you at risk for liver problems? What age does liver disease usually occur? And how young can you get cirrhosis?

Below, we’ll discuss how much alcohol puts you at risk, the average age of liver disease, and whether you should be concerned about alcohol-related liver problems if you’re in your 20s.

Can a 30-Year-Old Get Liver Disease?

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Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

To begin with, the answer is yes. Although the average age of cirrhosis of the liver is between 40 and 60, rates for younger people have been climbing for several decades. In fact, deaths from alcohol-related cirrhosis among 25- to 34-year-olds jumped an average of 10 percent each year) from 2009 and 2016.

Since the pandemic began in early 2020, the problem has only gotten worse. According to some estimates, overall rates of alcohol-related liver disease have increased as much as 30 percent since the beginning of COVID-19. Young people have been no exception: many have been hospitalized for the consequences of heavy quarantine drinking.

And it’s not just alcoholic liver disease and cirrhosis—fatty liver is on the rise among young people as well. While the immediate consequences of fatty liver disease may be less frightening than those of alcoholic hepatitis or cirrhosis, this disease can still lead to long-term health problems—including more serious types of liver disease down the line.

You needn’t be a heavy drinker to get fatty liver disease; poor diet and weight gain can also cause this problem. But if you drink excessively on top of this illness, you may accelerate the damage to your liver—and the consequences may appear sooner than you think.

infographic showing 4 stages of alcoholic liver disease
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What Causes Liver Disease in Young Adults?

A combination of factors can cause liver disease in young adults, including diet, exposure to toxins, viral infections such as hepatitis B and C, and chronic, excessive alcohol use.

Many people in their 20s develop non-alcoholic fatty liver disease in connection with obesity, which has also been a growing public health problem for decades. However, the rise in deaths from liver failure in younger people since 2009 is mostly linked to alcohol use.

There is much speculation as to why rates of alcoholic liver disease have risen so much among millennials over the past decade. One line of reasoning ties this trend to the 2008 economic crash, and higher levels of debt and financial stress among this generation. But since wealthier people are also experiencing this increase, this explanation may not tell the whole story.

The increase in liver disease among young people is especially puzzling considering millennials and generation Z seem to drink less overall than previous generations. Dr. Federico Vaca at Yale New Haven Hospital reports that “extreme binge drinking” is often a factor when younger patients are admitted. So, one possibility is that when millennials drink they consume larger amounts at once, putting unusual stress on their livers.

How Do I Know If I’m at Risk?

The standard definition of moderate drinking is up to one drink per day for women, and up to two for men. Unless a person has pre-existing liver problems, this amount is generally pretty low-risk.

If you find yourself drinking heavily (more than three to four servings per day), or binge drinking often (at least 4-5 drinks within 2 hours), you may be putting excess stress on your liver. While this may not cause immediate damage, problems like alcoholic hepatitis can happen surprisingly quickly. Considering the high rates of liver disease during the pandemic, it may not be a bad idea to have your liver tested.

If you’ve been struggling to control your alcohol use, especially during social distancing, there are new, remote options for cutting back. Ria Health’s online program is designed to fit your schedule, and allows you to choose either moderation or abstinence. If you’re in your 20s or 30s, and concerned about your future liver health, now is an excellent time to make a change.

Written By:
Evan O'Donnell
NYC-based content strategist with over 3 years editing and writing in the recovery space. Strong believer in accessible, empathic, and fact-based communication.
Reviewed By:
Evan O'Donnell
NYC-based content strategist with over 3 years editing and writing in the recovery space. Strong believer in accessible, empathic, and fact-based communication.
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