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Low to Moderate Alcohol Use Boosts Cancer Risk

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Having a glass of wine might be good for your heart, but even low-to-moderate alcohol consumption could be raising your risk for several cancer types and other serious illness.

UK researchers at University of Oxford tracked cancer incidences and alcohol use in 1.3 million middle-age women for the Million Women Study. Three out of four women in the study identified themselves as drinkers, and among these women, the average alcohol intake was about one drink per day.

Nearly 69,000 women were diagnosed with cancer over the study period, which had a follow up of just more than seven years. Women who drank were found to be at increased risk of cancer of the oral cavity, pharynx (throat), esophagus, larynx (voice box) rectum, liver and breast. The risk for all these cancers increased with the number of drinks a woman consumed, regardless of the type of alcohol she drank.

For those cancers associated with an increased risk—breast cancer, for example, a finding that is consistent with other studies—it made no difference what type of alcohol was most frequently consumed or whether women had received hormone replacement therapy, the researchers found.

However, for cancers of the upper digestive tract (oral cavity, esophagus, larynx, and pharynx) the increased risk associated with alcohol intake was seen only in women who were also current smokers. The incidence of rectal and liver cancers also increased with alcohol use, while thyroid cancer, renal cell carcinoma, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma decreased. More research about alcohol's protective effects for certain cancers is needed, the researchers said.

If you're a middle-aged or younger adult, some evidence shows that even moderate alcohol use may cause more harm than good, according to the Mayo Clinic. In fact, if you're a woman and drink alcohol, talk to your doctor about taking supplemental folate to help reduce the risk of breast cancer associated with alcohol use. You can take other steps to benefit your cardiovascular health besides drinking — eating a healthy diet and exercising, for example.

What might be considered a “healthy dose” of alcohol that may be good for you hasn’t been determined. Under U.S. guidelines, moderate drinking is considered as

  • Healthy women: a maximum of three drinks per occasion, or seven drinks a week
  • Healthy men 66 and older: a maximum of three drinks per occasion, or seven drinks a week
  • Healthy men 65 and younger: a maximum of four drinks per occasion or 14 drinks a week
  • One drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.

Dr. Arthur Schatzkin, chief of the Nutritional Epidemiology Branch in National Cancer Institute Division of Cancer Epidemology and Genetics, said what is not known at this point is whether for certain women there is a trade-off in possible benefits of alcohol consumption, such as a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, as numerous epidemiologic studies have suggested. However, it’s clear that for certain cancers, particularly of the breast, “alcohol consumption, even at moderate levels, is a modifiable risk factor.”

Lynette Summerill is an award-winning writer who lives in Scottsdale, Arizona. In addition to writing about cancer-related issues for EmpowHER, she pens Nonsmoking Nation, a blog following global tobacco news and events.

Sources: ”Moderate Alcohol Intake and Cancer Incidence in Women” Published online February 24, 2009 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (Vol. 101, Issue 5). Corresponding author: Naomi E. Allen, Cancer Epidemiology Unit, University of Oxford, UK

”Alcohol, Cardiovascular Disease, and Cancer: Treat With Caution”
Published online February 24, 2009 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (Vol. 101, Issue 5). Michael Lauer, MD, and Paul Sorlie, PhD. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, Bethesda, MD

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