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Cancer Risk and Alcohol Use

Recently reported in the American Journal of Public Health and widely covered in the general press, is the analysis of mortality data from the US, collected in 2009 compared with records of alcohol consumption. The investigators found an association - this was not a study that tested the effect of alcohol, but only one that observed patterns - that suggested 3.5% of US cancer deaths in 2009 might be attributed to alcohol use. Of that 3.5% more than half occurred in people having 3 or more drinks per day, and about a third in folks having fewer than 1.5 drinks per day. For women, breast cancer is the main cancer associated, and for men it's mouth, throat and esophagus cancers.

Several thoughts about this:

  • First it is not really news: we have long cautioned that the prudent choice is for women to have one or less drinks a day, and for men, two or less.
  • Second, the numbers are actually significant, if not huge. If half a million cancer deaths occurred in 2009 (roughly), about 5000 are linked with 1.5 drinks per day and 10,000 with 3 or more drinks per day. Spread out over all kinds of cancer, both sexes, and many adult ages.
  • Third, let's look at everything. For women there are a good dozen lifestyle modifications you can make to raise or lower your level of risk. If you are overweight, sedentary, and a smoker - drinking adds another modifiable risk. If you are slim, a vigorous exerciser, and were a young mother - your overall risk picture is already great. Please don't lose sight of the forest even with this wonderful view of a single tree!

Bottom line remains that avoiding smoking is the #1 think you can do to reduce the risk of cancer to yourself and those around you.

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