Research

1 in 3 Americans Face Greater Alcohol Risks

Originally published November 9, 2023

Last updated May 24, 2024

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A graphic design of a man sitting next to a wine glass and bottle the same size as him

The impact of heavy alcohol intake may be worse for the health of people experiencing metabolic syndrome, a cluster of other conditions.

Heavy alcohol use may be dramatically more damaging to the liver for people with metabolic syndrome — a cluster of conditions that together raise the risk of coronary heart disease, diabetes, stroke and other serious health problems.

“Our research suggests that metabolic syndrome and alcohol interact in such a way that they multiply the effect of alcohol on the liver, more than doubling the risk of advanced liver disease among heavy drinkers,” says Brian P. Lee, MD, MAS, a hepatologist and liver transplant specialist with Keck Medicine of USC.

Metabolic syndrome is characterized by symptoms such as abdominal fat, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and high blood sugar. It affects more than 1 in 3 Americans.

For the study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, Keck Medicine researchers used data representing the population 20 years or older between 1999 and 2018.

Heavy alcohol use was defined as two drinks (a total of 12 fluid ounces) a day for women and three drinks (a total of 18 fluid ounces) per day for men.

Although the data revealed a slight increase in advanced liver disease with heavy alcohol use in those without metabolic syndrome, the greatest increase was found in individuals with combined heavy alcohol use and metabolic syndrome.

Dr. Lee believes that the increased risk of liver damage from drinking is a result of an increase in the amount of fat in the liver.

A healthy liver contains less than 5% fat; any more than that can lead to inflammation and cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver, liver cancer and liver failure.

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