Two-hundred and fifty chronically alcoholic men (mean age, 41 +/- 11 years) entering an alcoholism treatment program were studied. Detailed clinical history, nutritional assessment and measurement of muscle strength by electronic myometer were performed in each case. In addition, hepatic ultrasonography and liver biopsy, echocardiography and radionuclide cardiac scanning, and electrophysiologica testing of peripheral nerves were performed when there was clinical evidence of liver disease, cardiomyopathy or neuropathy, respectively. Alcoholic cirrhosis was diagnosed in 20 cases, skeletal myopathy in 117, dilated cardiomyopathy in 20 and peripheral neuropathy in 41 cases. No patients with chronic myopathy or cardiomyopathy showed either clinical or laboratory evidence of malnutrition. Patients with cirrhosis showed a significantly lower lean body mass than controls (P = 0.03) and significantly lower nutritional protein levels than those alcoholics without cirrhosis. Alcoholics with peripheral neuropathy had significantly lower anthropometric parameters and nutrition protein levels than their counterparts (P < 0.001). However, in the multivariate analysis, the only independent factor for developing these complications of alcoholism was the total lifetime dose of ethanol (P < 0.001). We conclude that alcohol-related diseases are common in asymptomatic alcoholic men and these diseases appear to be due to an accumulative toxic effect of ethanol. Age and nutritional status do not seem to play a part in the development of such diseases.