Author: Tracy Miller, New York Daily News
Alcohol causes about 19,500 cancer deaths each year — and even as little as 1.5 drinks per day can make you part of that statistic, according to a sobering new study.
The research, published in the American Journal of Public Health, is the first in several decades to examine deaths from a variety of cancers that can be attributed to alcohol consumption, said lead study author David E. Nelson of the National Cancer Institute.
“One of the reasons we did the study was to update data that hadn’t been looked at for 30 years,” Nelson told the Daily News. “In that time, other diseases, and other cancers, have been linked to alcohol.”
The researchers looked at mortality data from two national surveys conducted in 2009, and using a mathematical formula, determined which of the cancer deaths were alcohol related.
About 3.2 to 3.7% of all cancer deaths in 2009 were attributed to alcohol, with oral cancers, pharynx, larynx and esophageal cancers the top killers in men, and breast cancer the most deadly in women.
About 15% of all breast cancer deaths were attributable to alcohol consumption, the study found.
Furthermore, while the risk of death was greatest among people who had three or more drinks per day, about 30% of deaths occurred among people who consumed 20 ounces, the equivalent of 1.5 drinks, per day.
“There’s no question that people who drink more frequently are at greater risk,” Nelson said. “What we do know is that alcohol is a cancer-causing agent. There is no acceptable or safe level.”
Heavier drinkers are more likely to engage in other unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, which also ups their risk, Nelson said, but the vast majority of drinkers don’t fall into this category.
“We’re missing one of the things we can do to help lower our cancer risk that’s hiding in plain sight,” he said. “This is something that doctors and people are just not paying attention to.”
That might be upsetting news to moderate drinkers who’ve been told their habit is harmless and may actually be good for them. Red wine in particular has been touted for heart health, cancer prevention and possibly even counteracting Alzheimer’s disease. Among older adults, one drink a day for women or two for men has been shown to guard against heart attack and stroke.
Most public health experts temper that advice with plenty of caution, however, saying the research isn’t conclusive.
“If you currently don’t drink, don’t start drinking for the possible health benefits,” the Mayo Clinic advises on its website.
This new study may help drive home the message that for many of us, even moderate drinking carries significant risks. People with a family history of cancer, especially, should think before choosing to imbibe.
“If you choose to drink, the lowest level possible is best,” Nelson said.