Drug treatment of the complications of cirrhosis in the older adult

Drugs Aging. 2001;18(8):575-85. doi: 10.2165/00002512-200118080-00002.


Several age-related changes occur in the structure and functions of the liver. The volume of the liver decreases, despite an increase in the size of hepatocytes, suggesting loss of liver cells. There are decreases in hepatic blood flow, the synthesis of urea and cholesterol, and the metabolism of drugs. Moreover, the regenerative capacity of liver becomes less efficient. Certain caveats are important when treating older patients with liver disease. Strict dietary restrictions, such as a low protein diet, should be avoided in the elderly (unless the patient is encephalopathic) because these patients are often undernourished to start with. Similarly, strict salt restriction should be enforced with caution, since it makes food less palatable and may take away what little desire such patients have to eat. Diuretic doses should be adjusted carefully because of greater risks of azotaemia and electrolyte disturbances in the elderly. Extra vigilance should be exercised in the early detection of infections that are more likely to occur in patients with cirrhosis. For example, spontaneous bacterial peritonitis can be missed in the elderly because of poor systemic (fever, abdominal tenderness) and laboratory responses (leucocytosis). In patients presenting with acute variceal bleeding, it is better to err on the side of underhydration than overhydration because of the risk of congestive heart failure. Vasopressin should be avoided in the elderly, since this drug has a high probability of precipitating an ischaemic event. Older patients do not tolerate beta-blockers as well as younger individuals and may require other treatment strategies for the prevention of variceal rebleeding episodes. Hepatic encephalopathy, especially the milder form, needs careful assessment because it can be easily confused with senile dementia syndromes. Cirrhosis is a premalignant condition and patients are at increased risk of developing hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), a tumour seen predominantly in the elderly. All patients with cirrhosis should be maintained on a lifelong screening programme consisting of a 6-monthly assessment of alpha-fetoprotein and an imaging study, since early detection provides the only hope for cure of HCC. The only definitive treatment of cirrhosis is liver transplantation. Advanced age is not a contraindication to transplantation, and survival in older patients (aged >60 years) is comparable to that in younger individuals.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aging* / pathology
  • Aging* / physiology
  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular / etiology*
  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular / mortality
  • Humans
  • Liver Cirrhosis* / complications
  • Liver Cirrhosis* / physiopathology
  • Liver Neoplasms / etiology*
  • Liver Neoplasms / mortality
  • Liver Transplantation
  • Middle Aged
  • Prognosis