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Study Examines Moderate Alcohol Consumption and Cancer

Posted in Research

Alcohol is a constant player in medical news. Health magazines and medical media stories often weigh the pros and cons of light and moderate alcohol intake and how it could possibly affect heart disease and cancer risk levels.

Only breast cancer has been extensively studied to determine how factors such as alcohol intake affect cancer risk. Recently the Million Women Study was conducted by Allen, Beral, Casabonne, Kan, Reeves, Brown and Green of the Cancer Epidemiology Unit at the University of Oxford.

The Million Women Study enrolled 1,280,296 women in the United Kingdom, and these women were routinely followed for incident cancer. Cox regression models were used to estimate cancer risks associated with alcohol consumption. Adjustments were made for other risk factors.

A quarter of the women reported that they drank no alcohol. 98 percent of the drinkers reported drinking fewer than 21 drinks per week, with drinkers on average consuming one drink per day.

The follow-up period averaged 7.2 years after the initial questionnaire, and 68,775 invasive cancers were reported.

Moderate alcohol consumption in women was associated with an increased risk of cancers in the oral cavity and pharynx, esophagus, larynx, rectum, breast, and liver. It was associated with a decreased risk for thyroid cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma and renal cell carcinoma.

When types of alcohol consumed were considered, it was found that there was no difference between the results of those who drank only wine and other consumers of alcohol.

The results of the study indicate that moderate alcohol consumption increases the overall risk of cancer. Each additional drink consumed per day on a regular basis may account for approximately 15 additional cancers per 1000 women (up to age 75 in developed countries).

Breast cancer was the cancer most associated with elevated risk due to moderate drinking. For every additional drink regularly consumed per day, the increase in incidence up to age 75 per 1000 women in developed countries is estimated to be 11 for breast cancer.

One limitation of the study is that the researchers were not able to address the risk of heavy sustained drinking.

The information provided by the Million Women Study is important for women assessing their cancer risk factors. Making choices about alcohol consumption and how it affects overall health is greatly impacted by this study. While some types cancer risk were found to be lowered by alcohol consumption, the overall risk for cancer went up with moderate drinking.