A Drink a Day Raises Women's Risk of Cancer, Study Indicates

The risk of cancer appeared the same whether women drank wine, beer or any other type of alcohol.
The risk of cancer appeared the same whether women drank wine, beer or any other type of alcohol. (By Nate Lankford For The Washington Post)
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By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 25, 2009

For years, many women have been buoyed by the news about one of life's guilty pleasures: That nightly glass of wine may not only take the edge off a day but also improve their health. Now it turns out that sipping pinot noir might not be such a good idea after all.

A new study involving nearly 1.3 million middle-aged British women -- the largest ever to examine alcohol and cancer in women -- found that just one glass of chardonnay, a single beer or any other type of alcoholic drink per day increases the risk of a variety of cancers.

"That's the take-home message," said Naomi E. Allen of the University of Oxford, who led the study being published March 4 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. "If you are regularly drinking even one drink per day, that's increasing your risk for cancer."

Understandably, the study may leave many women scratching their heads, given all the talk about red wine being something akin to a fountain of youth.

"I thought drinking wine was good for you," said Mirella Romansini, 27, of Chevy Chase, outside Paul's liquor store in Northwest Washington. "Now they are saying it increases your risk for cancer? Yes, I would say I'm surprised."

Romansini is hardly alone. At least half of U.S. women drink sometimes, and even the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the government's official bible on what we should be putting into our mouths, says alcohol can have "beneficial" effects, allowing women as much as one drink a day (men get two, of course).

Confused? It turns out the guidelines were never intended to recommend that anyone drink for his or her health. Yes, it's true that studies have indicated that moderate drinking may cut the risk of heart disease and other ailments. And researchers have identified a substance in red wine (remember resveratrol?) that could offer a host of benefits.

But officials have long worried about sending the wrong message, giving people who take extraordinary risks if they drink -- young people, pregnant women, those prone to alcoholism -- permission to abuse alcohol. As a result, officials have long tried to walk a fine line between acknowledging the possible benefits of alcohol and encouraging people to start drinking or to abuse it. The guidelines were intended to set an upper limit on what might be safe, not a recommended daily dose.

"It's a level of consumption that generally has been found in scientific studies to be associated with a relatively low risk of harms," said Robert D. Brewer of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "But low risk does not mean no risk."

In fact, many previous studies have found that alcohol appears to increase the risk of breast cancer, and that heavy drinking could make men and women prone to other cancers as well. The new study is a large-scale attempt to explore all cancer risks posed by more typical drinking levels and a spectrum of alcoholic beverages.

Allen and her colleagues analyzed data collected by the Million Women Study, which since 1996 has been gathering detailed information from 1.28 million women ages 50 to 64. The researchers examined how much alcohol women reported consuming when they volunteered for the study and again three years later, and examined whether there was any link with the 68,775 cancers they developed over an average of the next seven years.

Even among women who consumed as little as 10 grams of alcohol a day on average -- the equivalent of about one drink -- the risk for cancer of the breast, liver and rectum was elevated, the researchers found. Among women who also smoked, the risk of mouth and throat cancer also increased.

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