Congress delegates heard this week about a study that showed the deadly effect that high alcohol intake and excess body weight can have on women’s chances of developing and dying from chronic liver disease.

The researchers analyzed data from over 107,000 women across the United Kingdom to find out how weight and alcohol consumption affect the liver. The findings were presented on Thursday at the 2013 International Liver Congress in Amsterdam in The Netherlands.

The Congress is an annual event organized by the European Association for the Study of the Liver (EASL), whose Scientific Committee Member Daniele Prati says in a press statement that we have known for some time that a person’s alcohol intake and their weight are major causes of chronic liver disease, but until now there has not been a large population study that compares how these two factors affect each other.

“Interestingly, the research found the combination of a woman’s drinking habits and weight has an important effect on liver health and life expectancy,” says Prati.

For the study, the researchers classed the participants by low or high BMI and low or high alcohol intake.

Low BMI was defined as under 25, and high as 25 and over (normally classified as overweight).

Low alcohol intake was classed as 15 units a week or less, and high as over 15 units a week. A unit is about one 25ml single measure of 40% whisky, or a third of a pint of 6% beer, or half a 175ml standard glass of 12% red wine.

In the UK the government advises people should not regularly drink more than the daily unit guidelines of 3-4 units of alcohol for men and 2-3 units of alcohol for women, where “regularly” means drinking every day or most days of the week.

The results showed that women who had both high BMI and high alcohol intake were significantly more likely to suffer from chronic liver disease.

Prati says the findings will have a significant impact on how millions of women around the world are helped to reduce their risk for liver disease.

“Based on this research we know that a person with low BMI and high alcoholic intake have a greater risk of developing chronic liver disease compared to a woman with a high BMI who doesn’t drink very much,” she explains, adding that:

“Women are at particular risk as they are twice as sensitive as men to alcohol related liver damage and developing a more severe form of the disease at lower doses with shorter durations of alcohol consumption.”

Describing the study as “a step in the right direction”, she urges that research now needs to be done to establish the exact thresholds for each risk factor’s effect on chronic liver disease risk, separately and together.

Another study presented at the Congress found that patients with alcoholic cirrhosis who also have fatty liver disease and are overweight, obese or type 2 diabetic are more likely to develop hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), the most common type of liver cancer.

Of that study, Prati notes:

“Fatty liver and alcohol have long been known as risk factors for HCC but this study tested their combined effect in patients with alcoholic cirrhosis.”

“The results will be useful to improve the management of patients with cirrhosis, and to identify cancer at early stages,” she adds.

Europe has the highest rate of alcohol intake in the world, with 1 in 7 adults drinking more than the advised limit.

A recently published report from EASL also suggests that alcohol consumption, viral hepatitis B and C and metabolic syndromes related to overweight and obesity are the leading causes of cirrhosis and primary liver cancer in Europe.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD