Daily alcohol consumption even at very low levels early in life may significantly increase the risk of alcoholic liver disease in men, a new study suggests.
The paper, published in the Journal of Hepatology, suggests that guidelines for safe alcohol intake in men may have to be "revised downwards".
Alcohol is the leading cause of liver cirrhosis and liver-related deaths. The current maximum weekly recommended limit for men in Ireland is 17 units, or standard drinks. A unit contains 10 grams of alcohol and is equivalent to a half pint of beer or a small glass of wine.
A study by Swedish doctors, based on more than 43,000 men conscripted into the army in 1969-1970 at the ages of 18 and 19, found that how much a person drinks in their late teens can predict the risk of developing cirrhosis later in life.
After 39 years of follow-up, 383 men had developed severe liver disease, including liver cancers, and the risk was found to be more pronounced in those who had consumed two drinks a day – about 20 grams of alcohol – or more.
“Data indicated that alcohol consumption early in life was associated with an increased risk of developing severe liver disease,” the study said.
“After almost 40 years of follow-up, we found that alcohol consumption was a significant risk factor for developing severe liver disease and was most pronounced in men consuming two drinks per day or more,” the authors said.
“Before adjustment for body mass index, tobacco consumption, the use of narcotics, cardiovascular fitness, and cognitive ability, the risk was significant for daily alcohol consumption as low as six grams per day,” the authors said.
They concluded that “current guidelines for safe alcohol intake in men might have to be revised”. The results of the study are only valid for men and need to be validated for women.
Current recommended cut-off levels in some countries suggest that safe alcohol consumption for men to avoid alcoholic liver disease is 30 grams per day, roughly equivalent to three drinks.
"Our study showed that how much you drink in your late teens can predict the risk of developing cirrhosis later in life," said lead investigator Dr Hannes Hagström of the Centre for Digestive Diseases at Karolinska University Hospital, Stockholm.
“However, what can be considered a safe cut-off in men is less clear.
“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,” Dr Hagström said.
Alcohol-related cirrhosis is responsible for about 493,300 deaths each year, according to the World Health Organisation.
One in four deaths of young men aged 15-39 here is connected to alcohol. Almost two-thirds (63.9 per cent) of males start drinking alcohol before the age of 18 years, according to a 2013 survey for the Health Research Board.