The music community was stunned Friday following reports that Avicii, the superstar Swedish DJ, passed away in Oman at age 28. The official cause of his death has not been made public, but in recent years, the hitmaker behind songs like the Rita Ora collaboration “Lonely Together” and the ubiquitous 2013 chart-topper “Wake Me Up” was very vocal about his health issues, which included acute pancreatitis that was partially caused by excessive drinking.
Born Tim Bergling, Avicii had actually retired from DJing in 2016, citing physical and mental health issues. “To me it was something I had to do for my health,” he told the Hollywood Reporter at the time. Before that, in 2014, Avicii had to cancel many shows in order to recover from surgery to have his gallbladder and appendix removed. In 2013, he admitted in an interview with Time magazine that “I was drinking way too much, partying in general way too much.” As young as age 21, he was already hospitalized for acute pancreatitis — that is, a brief and severe case of the disease — which manifests as swelling of the pancreas most often caused by gallstones or alcohol abuse.
The pancreas is a large, flat white gland tucked deep into the abdomen, and though we don’t think about it often, it plays a crucial role in digestion and controlling the amount of blood sugar in our bodies by secreting insulin and glucagon into the body. When the pancreas gets injured, the consequences can be dire. According to the National Pancreas Foundation of America, the symptoms of acute pancreatitis include extreme stomach pain, abdominal swelling, nausea and vomiting, fever, and a rapid pulse. The illness can also cause weight loss, which Avicii described as one of his symptoms in 2014.
Scientists aren’t entirely sure how acute pancreatitis is caused by excessive alcohol consumption, but one theory, according to the UK organization Drinkaware, is that alcohol is converted into toxic metabolites that interfere with the functioning of the cells of the pancreas, which in turn makes them unable to carry out their regular functions. Another theory is that alcohol clogs the ducts of the pancreas, causing it to swell. Whatever the mechanisms, alcohol-induced acute pancreatitis is most dangerous because it increases the chances of developing chronic pancreatitis, which usually requires constant medication to make up for the organ’s failure to help digest food and maintain blood sugar levels.
Unfortunately, sometimes the effects of pancreatitis can persist long after a person has stopped drinking alcohol. As WebMD puts it: “Damage to the pancreas from heavy alcohol use may not cause symptoms for many years, but then the person may suddenly develop severe pancreatitis symptoms.”
Avicii was very forthcoming about his struggles with illness as well as the pressures of the industry that exacerbated his health problems. As research into acute pancreatitis has shown, early diagnosis and prevention, which is only possible with awareness, is key. “The scene was not for me,” Avicii told the Hollywood Reporter. “It was not the shows and not the music.”