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Adolescent drinking can lead to adult liver problems

Drink as a teen, and you may face liver problems as an adult. That’s the conclusion of a new study into the risks of alcohol consumption in adolescence.

Studies have linked alcohol consumption to cirrhosis of the liver for decades, along with conditions like alcoholic hepatitis and fatty liver disease.

Among alcoholics and chronic heavy drinkers, anywhere from 15 to 20 percent develop cirrhosis – liver damage that is, unlike fatty liver disease, irreversible.

It turns out that when someone starts drinking may play a role in whether they develop cirrhosis, along with how much they drink.

“Our study showed that how much you drink in your late teens can predict the risk of developing cirrhosis later in life,” lead investigator Dr. Hannes Hagström of Sweden’s Karolinska University Hospital said in a press release.

The new investigation used data from a 1969-1970 study of Swedish men conscripted into military service; during that period, conscription was compulsory and with few exceptions, only men who had severe disabilities were allowed to bow out.

This gave Hagström’s team around 49,000 men from ages 18 to 20 to include in their study. Using identity numbers with their conscription records, they checked to see how many of the men had developed severe liver problems including cirrhosis.

They then used information about alcohol consumption early in the men’s life to determine whether it played a role in their later liver problems. They found that the 383 men who had severe liver disease, liver failure or who had died from liver problems had a history of drinking more in late adolescence than their peers.

While the recommended alcohol limit for men is 30 grams, or about three drinks a day, the scientists found that even six grams of alcohol a day in youth can significantly raise the risk of developing cirrhosis later in life.

“The present study adds to our knowledge about the risks of chronic alcohol consumption at a younger age,” Dr. Alexandre Louvet of the Hôpital Huriez in France wrote in an editorial to accompany the study. “Safe levels of alcohol consumption must be revised for the general population and public health policies must be adapted accordingly.”

The study’s results are restricted to men; further study among women is needed, the researchers said.

The study was published in the Journal of Hepatology.

By Kyla Cathey, staff writer

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