New evidence from a multinational research team points to the existence of a genetic component in the chances that any given alcohol consumer will develop a severe form of alcoholic liver disease known as alcoholic cirrhosis.
Alcoholic cirrhosis is an advanced form of alcoholic liver disease typically associated with alcoholism (alcohol dependence) and the long-term consumption of excessive amounts of alcohol. However, not all chronic heavy drinkers will develop this condition. In a study published in May 2015 in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, researchers from institutions in Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Switzerland and the U.S. investigated genetic inheritance as a potential underlying factor in at least some cases of alcoholic cirrhosis.
Alcoholic Liver Disease and Alcoholic Cirrhosis
The liver is the body’s primary organ for the breakdown and elimination of alcohol, an intoxicant that has a poisonous effect when consumed in any substantial amount. While the liver deals well with limited alcohol intake, its capacity is easily overwhelmed when a drinker passes a relatively low threshold of hourly consumption. As a rule, alcoholic liver disease occurs in people who repeatedly consume alcohol in excessive amounts and thereby begin to undermine their basic liver function and liver health. The initial stage of this disease, known as alcoholic fatty liver disease, triggers a potentially reversible buildup of fat cells inside the liver. The second stage of alcoholic liver disease, known as alcoholic hepatitis, produces liver cell inflammation that may or may not lead to fatal changes in liver function.
Alcoholic cirrhosis is the common term for permanent scarring of the liver (i.e., cirrhosis) caused by chronic and excessive overconsumption of alcohol. The scarring of liver tissue inevitably compromises the organ’s ability to function, and significant numbers of people affected by this condition will ultimately die. The American Liver Foundation estimates that one-tenth to one-fifth of all people who habitually consume alcohol in heavy amounts will develop alcoholic cirrhosis. Unlike alcoholic fatty liver disease and alcoholic hepatitis, the condition never goes away. However, drinkers can potentially limit or halt the worsening of alcoholic cirrhosis if they halt their alcohol intake.
Alcohol and Genetics
Current research shows that alcohol’s effects on the body and the chances of drinking alcohol in risky ways are partially determined by the influence of a number of genes encoded in human DNA. Certain versions of the genes in question increase alcohol’s damaging effects and/or the chances of developing alcohol problems, while other versions have the opposite impact. Any particular genetic variation may have a direct influence on alcohol-related factors or may only produce its influence in combination with one or more additional variations. In any individual, genetically imposed alcohol-related factors interact heavily with environmental influences encountered in daily life.
Genetics and Alcoholic Cirrhosis
In the study published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, the multinational research team used information collected from 859 adults to help identify any genetic component in the odds that a heavy drinker will develop alcoholic cirrhosis. Five hundred eighty of the study participants had a diagnosis for this form of alcoholic liver disease. The remaining 279 participants had drinking patterns that were largely similar to those maintained by the group with alcoholic cirrhosis; despite this fact, they had not developed the condition. For each individual in both groups, the researchers created detailed genetic and demographic profiles based on blood testing, medical records and extensive interviews.
The researchers concluded that the group affected by alcoholic cirrhosis actually had a lower level of lifetime alcohol intake than the group unaffected by the condition, even though their history of heavy drinking was somewhat longer. The members of both groups had a roughly equal chance of having at least one parent with serious alcohol problems. However, the group with alcoholic cirrhosis had a substantially higher chance of having a father whose cause of death was some form of alcoholic liver disease.
The study’s authors believe that their findings underscore the importance of person-specific risk factors for alcoholic cirrhosis in individuals who consume excessive amounts of alcohol. They also believe that their findings specifically underscore the importance of the genetic component of person-specific risk. The authors note that participants in the project came from a number of countries, a fact that adds to the strength of their conclusions.