Drinking Ups Breast Cancer Risks

Breast cancer risks increased by even low levels of alcohol consumption

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Drinking small to moderate amounts of alcohol is considered healthy for your heart and your mind and the aging process. Yet this mild drinking increases breast cancer risks, according to a new study.

Even as few as 3-6 drinks a week and regular drinking between the ages of 18 and 40 and after 40 all contribute to increased breast cancer risks.

"To drink or not to drink; it's up to you."

While the health risks of heavy drinking are well known and documented, few studies have looked at the impact of drinking small amounts of alcohol.

In recently published research, Wendy Y. Chen, M.D., M.P.H., of Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, and colleagues analyzed the association of alcohol habits among adults and breast cancer. The study examined consumption patterns, including quantity, frequency and age.

Researchers followed the 105,986 women who participated in the Nurses' Health Study from 1980 to 2008. Participants were questioned about their alcohol use as young adults and in eight subsequent alcohol assessments throughout the study period.

During the 28 years in which the women were followed, 7,690 participants were diagnosed with invasive breast cancer. Here's what the study found:

  • Women who drank 3-6 glasses of wine a week saw a 15 percent increased risk of breast cancer.
  • Women who consumed two drinks a day had a 51 percent increased breast cancer risk, compared with women who drank no alcohol.
  • Drinking alcohol between the ages of 18 and 40 and after 40 also was strongly linked with breast cancer risks.
  • Binge drinking also increased a woman's risks; however frequency of drinking did not.

Researchers write that the exact reason for this association is not fully understood. However, a probable cause is the effect alcohol has on a woman's level of estrogen, the hormone that drives the most common forms of breast cancer.

Authors conclude that while there is a demonstrated uptick in risks, women need to carefully consider the overall health impacts of alcohol. They urge individuals to "weigh the modest risks of light to moderate alcohol use on breast cancer development against the beneficial effects on cardiovascular disease to make the best personal choice regarding alcohol consumption."

This study was published in the November 2, 2011 issue of JAMA, (Journal of the American Medical Association).

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Review Date: 
November 1, 2011
Last Updated:
November 1, 2011