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Liver disease biggest cause of alcohol-related deaths in England and Wales

Excessive alcohol consumption caused 1.4% of deaths in England and Wales

Although drinking alcohol is a part of the culture in many societies and many people use it sensibly, its misuse has become a serious and worsening public health problem. The harmful use of alcohol results in 2.5 million deaths worldwide each year with over 5,000 deaths in England and Wales in each of the last ten years. Excessive alcohol consumption is a major cause of preventable premature death, accounting for 1.4% of all deaths registered in England and Wales in 2012.

Accidental alcohol poisoning fourth highest alcohol-related cause of death

Excessive alcohol consumption in a short period of time can have short term fatal consequences. In fact, accidental alcohol poisoning (intoxication) was the fourth highest (396 deaths) alcohol-related cause of death in 2012, with over a third among those in their 40s. There has been speculation that the influence of social media drinking games may drive these figures up in the future particularly among younger people. In 2012, there were 14 deaths among those in their 20s due to accidental alcohol poisoning, although it is not known whether these deaths were as a result of such games and any deaths occurring recently will not be included in these figures.

The effects of alcohol are almost immediate because it is absorbed faster than it is processed and eliminated from the body. People may become very drowsy when intoxicated, they may breathe in their vomit, contract pneumonia or even die. Heavy drinking is also linked with low blood pressure, low blood sugar levels and heart attacks.

11 year rise in alcoholic liver disease deaths between 2002 and 2012

Alcoholic liver disease was responsible for the majority of alcohol-related deaths. In 2012 it accounted for 63% (4,425) of deaths, 18% higher than the number of deaths in 2002 at 3,629. The majority (31%) of deaths from alcoholic liver disease were among those aged 50-59 years. The number of alcoholic liver disease deaths tended to increase for those aged 40 years and over between 2002 and 2012.  The biggest increase (33%) was seen among those in their 60s.

The liver is the second largest organ in the body and it is responsible for processing what we eat and drink into nutrients and energy, as well as removing harmful substances from the blood. The human body cannot store alcohol, instead it treats it as a potential poison and eliminates it through the liver. This makes the liver particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of alcohol. Alcoholic liver disease refers to a group of conditions which damage the liver in three stages following chronic heavy alcohol consumption.

Top 5 alcohol related deaths by causes and agegroup, England and Wales, 2012

Top 5 alcohol related deaths by causes and agegroup, England and Wales, 2012
Source: Office for National Statistics

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How does liver disease develop as a result of heavy drinking?

Stage 1: Fatty liver disease

In the first stage of alcoholic liver disease, excessive consumption of alcohol results in fatty liver disease, a condition characterised by the accumulation of excess fat in the liver. The worrying thing about this disease is that most patients show no symptoms. However, when symptoms (such as fatigue, weakness, and weight loss) manifest, it is a warning sign that an individual is drinking too much. Although alcoholic fatty liver causes the least serious damage to the liver and is potentially reversible, it has claimed more lives among those in their 40s (684) in the last 11 years than in any other age group.

Stage 2: Alcoholic hepatitis

The second stage is alcoholic hepatitis. In this stage the liver is swollen and its cells begin to die. Its effects can range from mild to life threatening. Deaths increased between 2002 and 2012 and were relatively common at younger ages.  The highest number of deaths in 2002-12 was among those in their 50s (533), followed by those in their 40s (530).

Stage 3: Alcoholic Cirrhosis

The final stage is alcoholic cirrhosis which is where the; normal liver tissue is permanently scarred due to prolonged heavy drinking. Alcoholic cirrhosis causes complications such as accumulation of fluid in the liver, hypertension, deterioration of brain function and liver failure. Those who continue to drink have less than 50% chance of living for at least five more years. Alcoholic cirrhosis deaths have risen in the last 11 years. The highest in 2002–12 was among those in their 50s (3,495) while those in their 40s were the second highest (2,598).

The increase in alcohol cirrhosis deaths between 2002 and 2012 ranged from 20% (207 to 259 deaths) among those in their 40s to 38% (185 to 298) among those in their 60s. The relatively long time it takes for this disease to develop suggests that heavy drinking is either starting at younger ages or the quantity being consumed by young people is increasing, therefore taking its toll on their health earlier.

Where can I find out more about alcohol related deaths?

These statistics were analysed by the Mortality Analysis Team at ONS. The analysis is based on data collected when deaths are registered and published in the Alcohol-related deaths in the UK bulletin. If you would like to find out more about the latest alcohol related death statistics, you can read the release or visit the health and social care page. If you have any comments or suggestions, we would like to hear them. Please email us at:

Categories: Population, Deaths, Mortality Rates, Alcohol-related Deaths, Health and Social Care, Health of the Population, Causes of Death, Lifestyles and Behaviours, Drug use, Alcohol and Smoking, Alcohol Misuse
Content from the Office for National Statistics.
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