I drink one to two glasses of wine most evenings. I always thought this was good for your health. But I recently read that even small amounts of alcohol increase your risk of developing cancer. It’s confusing. Any advice?

Chrome 2001
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Aetna Intelihealth InteliHealth Aetna Intelihealth Aetna Intelihealth
 
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Harvard Medical School
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Chrome 2001
Chrome 2001
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I drink one to two glasses of wine most evenings. I always thought this was good for your health. But I recently read that even small amounts of alcohol increase your risk of developing cancer. It’s confusing. Any advice?

A:

You have it right. And it is confusing. Thorough research on this topic has left us with a mixed message.

Drinking alcohol on a moderate basis indeed lowers the odds of developing or dying from heart disease. And heart disease is still the leading cause of death in the United States.

Compared to people who don’t drink alcohol, moderate drinkers have a:

  • 29% lower risk of being diagnosed with coronary artery disease
  • 25% lower risk of dying from a heart attack
  • 25% lower risk of dying from any heart or blood vessel disease

But an estimated 4% of cancer deaths worldwide are related to alcohol use. It’s a little lower in the United States, at 3.5%. The most common alcohol-related cancers in men were mouth, throat, and esophageal cancer. In women, it’s breast cancer.

The more you drink, the higher the cancer risk. But even moderate drinking raises a woman’s risk of breast cancer.

For people who don’t drink alcohol now, there’s no reason to start. But they also shouldn’t worry if they occasionally have a drink.

Women at higher than average risk of breast cancer or who are worried about developing breast cancer have a tricky decision as well. To drink or not to drink? Not drinking would eliminate one possible risk factor of for breast cancer.

At the same time, heart disease is more common and deadly among women than breast cancer. A higher risk heart disease might tilt the balance in favor of reasonable alcohol use.

If you do enjoy alcohol, keep your drinking in the moderate range. For women, that means no more than one drink per day. For men, that’s no more than two per day.

You don’t get any extra heart protection by drinking more. And your risk of cancer — and many other problems — rises dramatically with higher amounts of alcohol use

One day, advances in genetics may let us more accurately predict who can use alcohol in moderation and who should avoid it completely.

Last updated February 26, 2013


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