The study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, examined 125,580 men and women who had undergone voluntary examinations between 1978 and 1985. By 2001, 330 people were diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver - 199 of whom had alcoholic cirrhosis.
Cirrhosis manifests itself when scar tissue replaces healthy tissue and blocks the flow of blood through the liver. With a total of 27,794 deaths in 2002, it is the twelfth leading cause of death by disease in the US, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Of these incidences of cirrhosis, 43.6 percent were alcohol-related.
The study, led by Dr Arthur Klatshky at the Department of Medicine, Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program in California, set out to examine the possible protection effect of coffee. In the past lower blood levels of hepatocellular enzymes had been found in coffee drinkers. Elevated levels are often a sign of liver damage.
The research found the higher the daily coffee intake, the lesser the chance of developing alcoholic cirrhosis. Four or more cups showed an 80 percent reduced risk; one to three cups resulted in a 40 percent reduced risk; and less than one cup was linked to a 30 percent decrease.
Eighty percent of Americans drink coffee, at an average of 3.2 cups a day, according to the National Coffee Association.
Researchers suspect the key risk-reducing agent in the coffee is not in fact caffeine, because there was no inverse relation between tea drinking and cirrhosis. However, results were inconclusive because tea drinking was not popular among the sample population.
"Basic research about hepatic coffee-ethanol interactions is warranted, but we should keep in mind that coffee might represent only one of a number of potential cirrhosis risk modulators," concluded the authors.
Although long-term ingestion of large quantities of alcohol is the most common cause of liver cirrhosis in developed countries, according to the study, most long-term heavy alcohol drinkers do not develop cirrhosis. This indicates that there are predisposing factors to the disease such as genetic susceptibility, diet or cigarette smoking.
Finally, the authors warned that getting on the wagon is the most effective way to prevent alcoholic cirrhosis. "Even if coffee is protective, the primary approach to reduction of alcoholic cirrhosis is avoidance or cessation of heavy alcohol drinking."