Alcohol: even a little increases cancer risk

February 26, 2009 by  
Filed under CANCER

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Alcohol is a substance of contradictions. Some cultures dismiss it as evil, some consider it as an integral part of their lifestyle. Some health experts swear to its benefits, while others are sceptical. Now, here is a study that will surely cause uproar.

The latest results from the Million Women Study suggest that “even low to moderate alcohol consumption significantly increases the risk of cancer, both overall and at specific sites.”

The study looked at 1,280,296 middle-aged women (median age is 55 years) in the UK recruited between 1996 and 2001 and followed up for an average of 7.2 years. The drinking habits and cancer incidence among the participants were analyzed, with the following results:

  • 68,775 study participants were diagnosed with cancer.
  • 25% of the participants drank alcohol regularly.
  • 98% of those who drink consumed on average, one drink per day, which is considered to be low to moderate consumption.
  • Very few drank excessively, e.g. three or more drinks a day
  • The risk for all types of cancer increased with increasing consumption of alcohol.

The study identified specific types of cancer that is especially linked to alcohol consumption and there are cancers of the breast, rectum, and liver. When combined with smoking, alcohol consumption can also lead to an increase in the risk for cancers of the oral cavity and pharynx, esophagus, and larynx.

Whereas several studies have previously shown that some alcoholic drinks are more benevolent than others, this study reports that the kind of drink doesn’t make much of a difference.

The study concluded:

Low to moderate alcohol consumption in women increases the risk of certain cancers. For every additional drink regularly consumed per day, the increase in incidence up to age 75 years per 1000 for women in developed countries is estimated to be about 11 for breast cancer, 1 for cancers of the oral cavity and pharynx, 1 for cancer of the rectum, and 0.7 each for cancers of the esophagus, larynx and liver, giving a total excess of about 15 cancers per 1000 women up to age 75.

The results of this study are really “sobering” in many ways and contradict many study results before it. Many women in developed countries, especially in Europe and North America drink occasionally. In many parts of Europe, drinking a glass of wine during meal is part of the culinary culture. I do like a glass of wine every now and then. After all, alcohol, especially red wine, when taken in moderation, is said to have some benefits for cardiovascular health.

However, sceptics cannot deny the power of this research study based on its large sample size and long follow-up period. Editors of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute wrote “from a standpoint of cancer risk, the message of this report could not be clearer. There is no level of alcohol consumption that can be considered safe.” Their advice is “Alcohol, Cardiovascular Disease, and Cancer: Treat With Caution.”

The study was done excluively on women so it is not clear whether these risks are true for men as well. It has been well-documented that alcohol can have some gender-specific effects.

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