Does Alcohol Increase Your Risk of Breast Cancer?

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“Salute, Salud, Iechyd Dda, Slange-Var!” When women around the world raise their glasses “To health,” are they putting themselves in harm’s way?  A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), suggests that even low levels of alcohol intake (the equivalent of three to six glasses of wine per week) is linked to a small increase in the risk of developing breast cancer. This study sounded an alarm in the media, and it has many consumers confused—for several years there has been evidence that moderate alcohol consumption is potentially beneficial for heart health. Does this new study negate all that?

To Drink or Not to Drink

Before you permanently forgo your Merlot, it’s important to understand the details of the findings. Researchers used questionnaire data from the Nurses’ Health Study and looked at information gathered between 1980 and 2008 from more than 100,000 women. Alcohol consumption and drinking patterns were examined through an initial alcohol assessment and eight follow up surveys. By analyzing this information, researchers found a small (15 percent) increase in the relative risk of developing breast cancer for women who have three to six alcoholic beverages per week. For women who have two or more drinks per day, there was a 50 percent increase in risk.

Demystifying This Scary Statistic

While these numbers may sound dramatic, it’s important to know that the overall risk of developing breast cancer is relatively low. For most women, the likelihood that you will actually get cancer is not enough to warrant giving up drinking altogether. On average, women in their fifties have a 1/42 (or 2.38 percent) risk of developing breast cancer; the study suggests that light drinking (three to six beverages per week) would change this risk to about 1/37, which is equivalent to four additional cases of breast cancer per 1,000 women. Having two or more drinks per day would change this risk to 1/28, and would potentially result in an additional 12 cases of breast cancer per 1,000 women.

This study may leave you feeling as though you have more questions than answers: Do you drink for your heart or abstain to avoid cancer? And if you do drink, it is better to have wine, beer, or a concoction from the hottest happy hour? What does this mean if you aren’t even a drinker to begin with? Here’s help distilling the details:

Weigh the Risks and Benefits for You

Many studies have concluded that alcohol has protective effects for cardiovascular disease and that moderate alcohol intake can reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke. Heart attacks kill six times as many women as breast cancer, so it may be beneficial for you to consume small amounts of alcohol. Consider your individual risk factors for heart disease and breast cancer (such as your personal and family history and other risks) as you decide about whether or not to make a drink with dinner part of your routine.

Drink in moderation, whatever beverage you choose

It’s not clear that wine is a winner or that beer is better. The link between alcohol and increased risk of breast cancer in the JAMA study wasn’t dependent on the type of alcohol—beer, wine, and liquor all had similar effects. And although some research has suggested that the antioxidants and flavonoids in red wine make it a better choice than beer or hard alcohol for reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, there haven’t been any direct comparison trials to confirm this. There is one thing to keep in mind: If cocktails are your drink of choice, you may be getting unnecessary sugar and other potentially empty calories in the mixers.

No matter what you drink, it’s important to pay attention to amount. Experts agree that excessive alcohol consumption isn’t good for any of your organs. For women, moderate drinking is defined as up to one drink per day; for men, it’s up to two drinks per day. One drink is the equivalent of 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of wine, or one and a half ounces of hard liquor, such as vodka or whiskey.

If you don’t drink, don’t start

There are other ways to get cardiovascular benefits that will also reduce your risk of breast cancer. Control your weight, eat a healthy diet, get plenty of exercise, and don’t smoke.

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The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.

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