Although Rachel Martin would never deny she had a drinking problem, she figured years would pass before it would take a toll on her health. After all, she had not yet hit 40 and she had managed to eke out two years of complete sobriety about a decade ago.
Even when she was drinking, she would hit the bottle hard for three weeks but then go cold turkey for a week.
So when Martin started feeling off about a year and a half ago, she tried to ignore the symptoms. She lost her appetite, her skin itched, and as she put it, she lost her waist as fluid accumulated in her abdomen. For four months she continued to drink, but in mid-March 2019, she decided she was done.
The next day she finally went to the doctor and found out she had cirrhosis of the liver, something that did not surprise her, given her internet-aided self-diagnosis.
What did surprise her, however, was what her doctor said: If she did not stop drinking she might die within a month. Even if she did quit, she might not make it three months.
“You know it’s bad for you, you know it’s not healthy at all whatsoever, but you think, ‘Oh, I have no family history of this,’ ” said the Bloomington resident, who is now 39. “I know people that drink more than I do, and they’re fine. I have years before I have to worry about this.”
Doctors are seeing more patients like Martin, people in their 20s and 30s with symptoms of acute liver disease related to alcohol consumption. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism published a study in January that found that from 1999 to 2017 the number of alcohol-related deaths per year doubled, rising from 35,914 to 72,558. Just under a third of those resulted from liver disease.
Similarly, a study in the British Medical Journal published in 2018 also noted a dramatic increase in deaths in the United States from cirrhosis from 1999 to 2016. In that time period, people ages 25 to 34 saw the highest increase.
“There is an epidemic of alcoholism and alcohol use disorder that I think is hiding behind the opioid crisis,” said Dr. Naga Chalasani, head of hepatology at Indiana University Health. “Alcohol consumption has risen in this country. … Everything is sort of going in the wrong direction. There are more people drinking, and the people who drink are drinking more.”