Study Shows Drinking Increases Cancer Risk in Middle-Aged Women
By Dr. Don Rose,
You may have heard that drinking alcohol in moderation can be good for your health. For example, the view that one glass of red wine a day helps the heart has recently gained popularity and received a good deal of media attention.
Now a different point of view has emerged related to women and drinking. This article discusses newly published results that show that alcohol consumption (even as low as one drink a day) appears to cause an increased risk of cancer in middle-age women.
The Alcohol-Cancer Causal Connection in Women
According to HealthDay News, research involving over a million middle-age women finds that even moderate drinking raises risks for breast, liver and other cancers. "Even relatively low levels of drinking -- on the order of one alcoholic drink per day -- increase a woman's risk of developing cancer," said Naomi Allen, lead researcher in the cancer epidemiology unit at the University of Oxford. "Because a high proportion of women drink low amounts of alcohol regularly and because most of the increased risk is for breast cancer, the risk among women associated with drinking alcohol is of particular importance." In fact, the study found that moderate drinking accounts for 13 percent of breast, liver, rectum and upper respiratory/digestive tract cancers among women.
The researchers note that the association between moderate alcohol intake and breast cancer in women is well-known. The new finding is that even low levels of drinking can raise a woman's risk of developing cancer of the liver and rectum. For women who smoke, cancers of the mouth and throat were also linked to high alcohol consumption.
The report is published in the February 24, 2009 online edition of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.
For the study, Allen's team collected data on more than 1.2 million middle-age British women participating in the Million Women Study. The researchers used the National Health Service Central Registries to identify cancer cases among these women. Most women in the study had about a drink a day, and a smaller percentage had three or more drinks a day, the researchers found. Over more than seven years of follow-up, 68,775 women developed cancer. "These findings are robust, and alcohol consumption was assessed several times before women were diagnosed with cancer, making these estimates reliable," Allen said.
Overall, the risk of cancer increased as alcohol consumption increased. The type of alcohol consumed appeared to make no difference. Women who drank and also smoked faced increased risk of cancers of the oral cavity and pharynx, esophagus, and larynx (voice box), the researchers found.
The study suggests "that in developed countries, where women typically consume low-moderate amounts of alcohol, we estimate that for every additional drink regularly consumed each day, there would be about 15 extra cases of cancers of the breast, liver, rectum and mouth and throat diagnosed for every 1,000 women up to the age of 75," Allen said. "Most of this excess risk is due to breast cancer."
Susan M. Gapstur, vice president of epidemiology at the American Cancer Society, said the findings confirm and expand on those from previous studies in men and in smaller cohorts of women. But several questions remain unanswered, she said. "For example, researchers remain concerned about the pattern of consumption," Gapstur said. "It is unclear, for example, whether someone who drinks several glasses of wine on one day during the week has the same risk as someone who drinks one glass of wine per day with a meal. In addition, the effects of quitting or reducing drinking on cancer risk are also unclear."
On top of these questions, there is the issue of how drinking affects the heart. Many studies have suggested that alcohol, especially red wine, may help deter heart disease. This will no doubt complicate decisions and recommendations regarding drinking and health.
What is the Best Advice?
The American Cancer Society currentlyrecommends limiting alcohol intake to one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men, Gapstur said. Of course, one wonders if the ACS will change these recommended limits based on the newly published findings.
"If you do not drink, there is no reason to start drinking," Gapstur reasoned. "However, in light of the findings from the Million Women Study, women who are concerned about their cancer risk versus their risk of cardiovascular disease might want to discuss the potential risks and benefits of even low alcohol intake with their health-care providers."
In an accompanying journal editorial, Dr. Michael Lauer, director of the Division of Prevention and Population Sciences at the U.S. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, said he believes the risk for cancer might outweigh any perceived benefit in terms of heart disease. "People who are not drinkers should not start drinking to prevent heart disease, and even people who are drinking should discuss this with their physicians," he said. "And as part of that conversation, they should consider other conditions than heart disease. We cannot just focus on heart disease."
The currently popular view that “drinking in moderation is good for you” seems to be an overgeneralization. It now seems that the truth is more complex, with moderate alcohol consumption possibly providing benefits for some people’s health but not for others. The latter group includes middle-age women, as newly published results show that even a single drink a day appears to pose increased cancer risks for this group of women.
The bottom line is that adults (especially older women) who don’t drink probably should not start, and people who do drink should see a doctor to weigh the potential risks (like cancer) against any potential benefits (such as a healthier heart). Drinkers should also consider reducing their intake to a maximum of one drink per day, especially if female.
Of course, there are other risks and dangers to worry about when we get older, too. For example, seniors are more likely than younger adults to suffer a fall. To ensure that one is protected in the event of any type of emergency, a medical alert system like Life Alert can be extremely helpful, even a lifesaver, especially for people living alone. If you or someone with you is in danger, all you need to do is press Life Alert’s medical alert pendant and Life Alert can summon immediate help at any hour of the day or night, 24/7.
“Drinking Raises Cancer Risk for Middle-Age Women” by Steven Reinberg, HealthDay News.
SOURCES: Naomi Allen, D.Phil., Cancer Epidemiology Unit, University of Oxford, United Kingdom; Michael Lauer, M.D., director, Division of Prevention and Population Sciences, U.S. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, Bethesda, Md.; Susan M. Gapstur, Ph.D., M.P.H., vice president, epidemiology, American Cancer Society, Atlanta; Feb. 24, 2009, Journal of the National Cancer Institute
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