Researchers working at the Centre for Digestive Diseases of the Division of Hepatology, based at Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm, Sweden, have now conducted a large-scale retrospective study to investigate how the consumption of alcohol during adolescence might affect a person's health later in life.
While analyzing the data, the researchers also noted some worrying links between alcohol consumption in men and negative health outcomes.
There are now worries that current international guidelines on safe drinking may be too permissive and optimistic.
"Our study," says lead investigator Hannes Hagström, "showed that how much you drink in your late teens can predict the risk of developing cirrhosis [a form of liver disease] later in life."
Currently, in the United States, the recommended limit for alcohol use is no more than two drinks per day for men, and one drink each day for women, where "a drink" contains around 0.6 ounces, or 14 grams, of pure alcohol.
But according to the new study, these recommendations may need to be amended, as alcohol seems to affect men's health more strongly than previously believed. Hagström also notes that what "a safe cut-off in men" might be remains unclear.
The researchers' findings were published in the Journal of Hepatology.
Teenage drinking tied to liver disease
Hagström and team's study was retrospective, focusing primarily on the link between late teenage drinking and health outcomes — specifically the risk of liver disease — in adulthood.
They analyzed data sourced from a national population study conducted between 1969 and 1970, taking into account all Swedish men recruited for military service, which was compulsory at that time.
The study collected the data of more than 49,000 men aged between 18 and 20. Their personal information was also matched with records submitted to the National Patient Register and the Causes of Death Register in Sweden.
This allowed the researchers to track any participants who had been diagnosed with severe liver disease by late 2009.
Hagström and team also adjusted their results for relevant modifiers, such as body mass index (BMI), smoking habits, use of narcotic drugs, and cognitive and cardiovascular health.
It was found that the young men who appeared to have indulged in alcohol consumption in late adolescence had an elevated risk of developing severe liver disease later in life.
They found that, over a 39-year follow-up period, a total of 383 men had developed one of the following conditions:
- cirrhosis, which is characterized by a gradual deterioration of the liver, leading to impaired blood circulation in this organ
- decompensated liver disease, which can arise as a complication of cirrhosis and may include hepatocellular carcinoma, ascites (or excess accumulation of fluid in the abdominal cavity), esophageal varices, hepatorenal syndrome (deterioration of kidney function), and hepatic encephalopathy (the deterioration of brain function associated with severe liver disease)
- liver failure
Some of these men also died as a result of severe liver disease.
The more drinks, the higher the risk
According to the researchers, the risk of developing liver disease depended on how much alcohol the men had consumed. Thus, two drinks per day — or about 20 grams, in the team's calculations — was associated with a higher risk of liver disease. More drinks were linked to an even more prominent risk.
Also, before adjusting the results for potential modifying factors, the scientists saw a high risk of negative health outcomes for even a low alcohol consumption, of around 6 grams per day.
However, it should be noted that the study only investigated these risks in men and do not speak of any health implications for women. The authors caution that further research needs to be conducted in that respect.
Still, the authors point out that their findings should encourage men to revise their drinking habits and do their best to cut down on their alcohol consumption as early as possible, as this is always the best prevention policy.
"If these results lead to lowering the cut-off levels for a 'safe' consumption of alcohol in men, and if men adhere to recommendations, we may see a reduced incidence of alcoholic liver disease in the future."