Alcohol consumption linked to increased cancer risk

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If you’d like to increase your risk of getting an array of cancers, a new study suggests you should hit the bottle.

Canadian researchers compared the drinking habits of 3,064 Montreal men who developed 13 kinds of cancer with the tendencies of 507 age-matched controls who were cancer-free. They found that consumption of beer, wine and spirits boosted the odds of developing many kinds of cancer. The association held up even after controlling for age, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, diet and smoking history.

Compared with people who had less than one drink per week, those who drank daily were nearly three times as likely to get esophageal cancer. Moderate drinkers (who consumed between one and six drinks per week) were 67% more likely to get stomach cancer, according to results published in the new issue of Cancer Epidemiology.


Heavy beer drinkers had a 53% increased risk of developing rectal cancer and were 46% times more likely to get lung cancer. People who imbibed spirits daily had more than three times the risk of liver cancer, more than twice the risk of pancreatic cancer, and a 66% increased risk of rectal cancer. Despite mounting evidence of the benefits of drinking wine, moderate wine drinkers had elevated odds of rectal and bladder cancer.

Most tellingly, the researchers also found a dose-response relationship -- that is, the heaviest drinkers were most at risk. Among people who consumed the most drinks for the most years, the risk of liver cancer was nearly eight times higher, and the risk of esophageal cancer was more than seven times as high. The biggest drinkers also had more than double the risk of pancreatic and rectal cancer and a more than 80% increased risk of prostate and colon cancer.

“For the most part we showed that light drinkers were less affected or not affected at all,” lead author Andrea Benedetti, a researcher at McGill University in Montreal, said in a statement. “It is people who drink every day or multiple times a day who are at risk.”


It’s not particularly surprising that alcohol isn’t necessarily a health food, but researchers still don’t know why it seems to do so much damage. Benedetti and her colleagues from the University of Quebec and the University of Montreal noted that ingested alcohol breaks down into acetaldehyde, a known carcinogen that interferes with DNA repair. They also pointed out that heavy drinking could cause nutritional deficiencies or impair the immune system’s ability to fight cancer.

-- Karen Kaplan