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Study: Long-Term Alcohol Consumption Plays Role in Pancreatitis Progression

Heavy alcohol consumption is associated with acute and repeated episodes of pancreatitis, an inflammatory condition that can cause severe abdominal pain and death. According to a new study published in the peer-reviewed journal Gastro Hep Advances, early interventions aimed at eliminating heavy alcohol consumption and addressing frequent concurrent mental health and social factors could reduce the progression of this disease.

The research, led by the study’s senior author, Christie Jeon, ScD, associate professor of Biomedical Sciences, along with Dhiraj Yadav, MD, professor of Medicine atChristie Jeon, ScD University of Pittsburgh, emphasizes the need for early intervention strategies to prevent pancreatitis in people who drink heavily.

According to the study, acute pancreatitis is a leading cause of gastrointestinal disease-related hospitalizations in the United States, with a 1%-2% mortality rate. The study's findings emphasize the significant role of sustained alcohol consumption in patients who were diagnosed with the condition.

"Our research suggests that alcohol, in combination with other factors, makes the pancreas more vulnerable to inflammation," Jeon said.

The study assessed the drinking patterns of patients who had been using alcohol regularly for an average of around 20 years, and who were hospitalized with acute pancreatitis or recurrent acute pancreatitis. Investigators found that the levels of drinking and the extent of alcohol consumption were considerably high in those patients who consumed, on average, 7-10 drinks per drinking day.

"Our major finding was that there was a significant amount of drinking, both in duration and intensity, in patients diagnosed with acute pancreatitis,” Jeon said.

The study also found that 28% of acute pancreatitis patients and 49% of recurring acute pancreatitis patients had recurrence within less than 12 months. The study suggests that recurring acute pancreatitis patients, due to their alcohol consumption, may be progressing toward chronic pancreatitis, which can result from repeated acute pancreatitis episodes.

"What we're seeing is that these patients have had long and intense exposure to alcohol," said Jeon. “In particular, patients with recurring acute pancreatitis show a similar intensity and sustained level of drinking as those patients who have chronic pancreatitis.”

Jeon said the research underscores the need for early intervention in patients who regularly use alcohol, to prevent the progression to chronic pancreatitis.

The study also delves into the complex relationship between alcohol consumption, mental health conditions and negative life events. Many patients with acute pancreatitis or recurring acute pancreatitis reported concurrent mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety, or negative life circumstances, such as family problems, death or financial strain.

“These findings highlight the need for a comprehensive approach to intervention that addresses both alcohol cessation and underlying mental health issues,” said David Underhill, PhD, chair of the Department of Biomedical Sciences.

Jeon said that a multidisciplinary intervention, which combines counseling, substance addiction medication and holistic care, may help stop disease progression in these types of patients.

"It has to go beyond pancreatitis, beyond alcohol, to really look at the patient as a whole," she said.

Jeon said that the development of substance-use-focused prevention and management guidelines for acute pancreatitis, which currently do not exist, would be a step in the right direction.

“Our findings highlight the urgency of targeted intervention,” Jeon said. “By addressing alcohol consumption and its interplay with mental health and social factors, clinicians can mitigate the risk of disease progression and better care for patients.”

Further research from Jeon’s team is focused on developing treatments to relieve symptoms and improve quality of life for patients with persistent forms of pancreatitis.

Funding: This study was funded by the Department of Defense award W81XWH-19-1-0888 (PI: Pandol). The sponsor has not taken any part in the conduct of the study and reporting of the findings.

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