Drink for Your Heart but Abstain for Cancer?

"In light of the findings from [this study], women who are concerned about their cancer risk versus their risk of cardiovascular disease might want to discuss the potential risks and benefits of even low alcohol intake with their health care providers," said Susan Gapstur, associate director of Cancer Prevention and Control within the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center at Northwestern University in Chicago.

And for those with a history of certain diseases such as breast cancer, experts said the heart-protective benefits of alcohol might not outweigh the overall increase in cancer risk caused by drinking.

"I think women at high breast cancer risk due to strong family history, or due to their own personal history, might be better off if they were to restrict alcohol intake to under one drink per day on average," said Dr. Tim Byers, associate dean of the Colorado School of Public Health at the University of Colorado at Denver.

The End Result: Alcohol's Effect on Life Expectancy

But for those whose personal history offers no added risk for alcohol consumption, taking a look at the overall life expectancy of alcohol drinkers might help to sway one's decision on whether the buzz is really worth it.

A study published in the journal Epidemiology in November 1998 found that light to moderate drinkers had the lowest risk of death compared with nondrinkers. Those who drank between one and seven alcoholic beverages a week experienced a 20 percent reduction in overall mortality.

When the researchers looked more closely at why light to moderate alcohol drinkers had less risk of death, they found that this group experienced a reduction in death from heart disease, thereby suggesting that the moderate alcohol consumption could have some protective benefits for the heart.

The Final Word on Alcohol

Based on the many studies finding that moderate alcohol consumption can have a heart-protective benefit, many experts said that moderate drinkers should not worry about this latest research finding an increased risk in cancer.

"A small decrease in [cardiovascular] risk more than compensates for an increased risk of rare cancers," said Dr. Alan Kristal, member and associate head of the Cancer Prevention Program at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. "You have to die of something, and no doubt how you live affects what you die [from], but not 'if' and maybe not 'when.'"

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