Drink for Your Heart but Abstain for Cancer?

A study focusing on women shows a few drinks a week can increase cancer risk.

ByABC News
February 24, 2009, 3:57 PM

Feb. 25, 2009— -- Even moderate alcohol consumption of more than two drinks a week may raise the risk of cancer, according to a new study, despite past research suggesting that light drinking can benefit your health. So what's the truth?

The latest piece of evidence on the risks of drinking alcohol comes from researchers at Oxford University who studied more than 1.2 million women in the United Kingdom. They found that drinking alcohol may account for about 13 percent of all breast, liver, rectal and upper digestive tract cancers in women.

More shocking, even small amounts of alcohol seemed to increase the cancer risk. When compared with women who drank two or fewer alcoholic beverages per week, those drinking up to six alcoholic beverages had a 2 percent greater risk for cancer in general; those consuming between seven and 14 drinks per week had a 5 percent increased risk for cancer; and those consuming 15 or more per week had a 15 percent increased risk for cancer.

Using these findings, Dr. Michael Lauer, director of the Division of Prevention and Population Sciences at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute in Bethesda, Md., wrote in the study's editorial that "there is no level of alcohol consumption that can be considered safe."

But with all we've heard in the past about the supposed health benefits of alcohol, can this really be the case?

Most experts say no.

"The editorialists … seem to be rather extreme in their views," said Dr. Charles Poole, associate professor of epidemiology in the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina. "I have seldom seen such a one-sided dismissal of the hypothesis that moderate alcohol use may have cardiovascular benefits."

A study published in the British Medical Journal in May 2006 found that women who drank alcohol at least one day a week had about a 35 percent lower risk of coronary heart disease than women who drank alcohol less than once a week. For men, however, those who drank daily saw the largest reduction in risk when compared with nondrinkers -- about 41 percent.