A startling jump in the number of people dying of liver disease has been triggered by an increase in alcohol consumption, Public Health England (PHE) has warned.
The first ever regional study into the preventable disease revealed a 40% rise in deaths over the past 12 years, with men twice as likely to be diagnosed as women.
Twenty-four hour drinking and higher levels of alcohol consumption are directly linked to the “rapid and shocking” increase in death rates, said Professor Julia Verne who led the research for PHE.
The study uncovered a stark North-South divide with up to four times as many male adults dying from the disease in Blackpool in the North West, 58.4 per 100,000, than Central Bedfordshire in the South East, 13 per 100,000.
“Most people who die of liver disease don’t realise they’ve got it until a very late stage”
In the seaside town there is one licensed premise for every 72 adults, almost half (48%) of which have 24 hour licences, compared with one for every 280 adults in the district of Central Bedfordshire where less than 10% have 24 hour licences.
The disease is the only major cause of death in England which is on the rise, while in the rest of Europe the death rate is falling in line with alcohol consumption.
Some 7,481 people died from liver disease in 2001 compared with 10,948 in 2012, making it one of England’s top killers.
Professor Verne, who is head of liver disease at PHE, said the traditional profile of a liver disease patient was shifting to include many adults in their 40s, 50s and 60s as well as a growing number in their 20s and 30s.
“These results were far more shocking than I imagined. This is a rapid increase in deaths in just over 10 years”, Professor Verne said.
“It’s clear from looking at the data that the continuous availability of alcohol, and not just binge drinking, is fuelling an increase in deaths from liver disease,” she said.
“There is often a very high number of licensed premises per head in areas with a high death rate,” said Professor Verne.
“England is the only country in Europe where the death rate from liver disease is increasing and not falling and that’s because our alcohol consumption is going up and theirs is going down,” she added.
“There is also a stark North-South divide, with death rates in the North mostly higher than those in the South, and about three times higher for those who live in the most deprived areas of England,” she said. “These profiles are urgently needed so local action can be taken. Some drastic changes are needed.”
She added that the results compound the need for more consideration of policies such as minimum alcohol pricing and advertising limitations, with 37% of liver disease deaths attributable to alcohol.
The profiles also found it is an emerging threat among the increasingly obese population in England while the third largest cause of the killer disease, hepatitis B and C, is also increasing.
Liver disease is one of the leading cause of premature death in England, responsible for one in 10 deaths of people in their 40s.
Professor Verne added: “This is a needless loss of young lives because most liver disease is preventable.
“This a public health priority so we need far more awareness about the causes of this silent killer,” she said. “Most people who die of liver disease don’t realise they’ve got it until a very late stage. While their life can be prolonged they can’t be saved.”
“These profiles, which were urgently needed, will begin to address the devastating rise of poor liver health throughout the country”
Andrew Langford, chief executive of The British Liver Trust, said: “The trust is delighted with the level of detail provided within these profiles – they provide invaluable evidence as to how local authorities, clinical commissioning groups, public health professionals and the NHS can improve upon and increase prevention, early diagnosis and more timely care and treatment.
“These profiles, which were urgently needed, will begin to address the devastating rise of poor liver health throughout the country and reduce unnecessary deaths of increasingly younger people from liver disease,” he said.
He added that the profiles will also help health care services to address gaps in their care for people suffering with liver disease as well as identify people at risk.
- The Local Authority Liver Disease Profiles are available on the Public Health England Fingertips website