Alcohol Affects Risks of Cancer and Heart Disease in Women

By now I’m sure some of you have heard about the new study that has been released that relates an increased incidence of cancer in women to alcohol consumption. I was quite shocked to see that health professionals are now saying that alcohol consumption at any level can increase a woman’s risk of developing cancer. What happened to “Drink a glass of red wine every day to improve your health”? What about all those Mediterranean women whose way of eating and drinking we have based a whole diet on because they are overall more healthy? What about how drinking red wine may aid weight loss?

Although alcohol consumption has been linked with increase risk of cancer in women, some may still benefit from it's ability to lower the risk of heart disease.

Although alcohol consumption has been linked with increased risk of cancer in women, some may still benefit from it's ability to lower the risk of heart disease.

This study linking alcohol consumption to increased cancer risk in women is called the “Million Women Study” and was published in the  highly reputable JNCI Journal of the National Cancer Institute. In this study, 1,280,296 middle-aged women in the United Kingdom were recruited to the study between 1996 and 2001. What this study found was that consumption of on average one alcoholic drink a day increased the incidence of cancer (mostly breast cancers) in women by 1.5%. Drinking an average of two alcoholic beverages a day increased this risk to 3% (JNCI Journal of the National Cancer Institute 2009 101(5):296-305).

It is hard not to be alarmed when you’ve been told for years that a drink a day can keep heart disease at bay, but then you are told that it will increase your cancer risk. But it is curious which of these risks, cancer or heart disease, are more drastically affected by alcohol consumption and which one is more of a risk to the lives of women.

Heart disease is the number one disease related to deaths in women. Although cancer causes the second highest deaths in women, almost twice as many women die from cardiovascular diseases than from all forms of cancer combined. According to the National Heart, Blood and Lung Institute (NHBLI), one in ten American women ages 45 to 64 has some form of heart disease. That increases to one in five for women over age 65.

There has been a large body of research conducted by the PHEPA (Primary Health Care European Project on Alcohol) that shows that low to moderate alcohol consumption can dramatically lower the incidence of heart disease in both men and women. This study showed that two alcoholic drinks a day reduced the risk of coronary heart disease by 20%. The highest reduction in risk was associated with one drink every other day and beyond two drinks a day the risk was greater than people who abstained.

In the dieting world, there has also been quite a bit of focus on how light drinking can lower the risk of heart disease and improve overall health. It has been well documented that people living in the Mediterranean have a lower incidence of heart disease and for this reason the popular Mediterranean Diet has been based on their food and alcohol consumption.

It is estimated that women in the Mediterranean drink one glass of wine a day with their meals. However, when I looked into the incidence of cancer in women who conformed to a Mediterranean diet, I was surprised to see that it was lower, not higher (British Journal of Cancer (2008) 99, 191–195). Could the results of this study throw a wrench into the whole “alcohol consumption at any level increases cancer in women” theory?

Now I am not a scientist, doctor or medical researcher and I do not wish to refute the findings of the Million Women Study. I am by no means implying that you should throw caution to the wind and drink without care. I think we can all agree that the eating and drinking habits of UK women are likely very close to those of American women, so the Million Women Study holds great merit for those of us living in the U.S. I can only speculate that the incidence of cancer would be reduced in Mediterranean women because of their diet and not because of their daily drinking habits. However, if heart disease is prevalent in your family you may still be better off drinking one glass of wine every day or two than none at all simply because heart disease poses higher risks than cancer to the female population.

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