Background & aims To date, studies into the natural history of alcohol-related liver disease (ALD) have lacked long-term follow-up, large numbers of participants, or both. We performed a systematic review to summarise studies that describe the natural history of histologically proven ALD. Methods PubMed and Medline were searched for relevant studies according to pre-specified criteria. Data were extracted to describe the prevalence of ALD, histological progression of disease and mortality. Single-proportion meta-analysis was used to combine data from studies regarding rates of progression or mortality. Results Thirty-seven studies were included, reporting data from 7,528 participants. Amongst cohorts of hazardous drinkers, on average 15% had normal histological appearance, 27% had hepatic steatosis, 24% had steatohepatitis and 26% had cirrhosis. The annualised rates of progression of pre-cirrhotic disease to cirrhosis were 1% (0-8%) for patients with normal histology, 3% (2-4%) for hepatic steatosis, 10% (6-17%) for steatohepatitis and 8% (3-19%) for fibrosis. Annualised mortality was 6% (4-7%) in patients with steatosis and 8% (5-13%) in cirrhosis. In patients with steatohepatitis on biopsy a marked difference was seen between inpatient cohorts (annual mortality 15%, 8-26%) and mixed cohorts of inpatients and outpatients (annual mortality 5%, 2-10%). Only in steatosis did non-liver-related mortality exceed liver-specific causes of mortality (5% per year vs. 1% per year). Conclusions These data confirm the observation that alcohol-related hepatic steatohepatitis requiring admission to hospital is the most dangerous subtype of ALD. Alcohol-related steatosis is not a benign condition as it is associated with significant risk of mortality.