It would be hard to miss the public health messages informing us of the risks of alcohol. Still, some studies have suggested that light-to-moderate drinking could have a protective effect, at least for death from cardiovascular disease. Meanwhile, other research suggests that any drinking increases the risk of developing cancer.
In a new PLOS Medicine study, Andrew Kunzmann of Queen’s University Belfast and colleagues from Ireland and the U.S. wanted to assess how lifetime drinking impacts risk of death from many cancers as well as overall mortality. The researchers used data collected from almost 100,000 older U.S. adults participating in the Prostate, Lung, Colorectal, and Ovarian Cancer Screening Trial, which tracked them for an average of 8.9 years. Participants also completed a diet history questionnaire that assessed their alcohol use. The study authors analyzed whether the combined risk of cancer and of death from any cause, including cardiovascular disease, varied in individuals with different long-term alcohol intakes.
The researchers found that the combined risk of death and developing a number of cancers was lowest in light drinkers – those consuming less than one drink per day – and increased with each additional drink per week. Nondrinkers had a somewhat higher combined risk than light drinkers, but the heaviest drinkers had by far the highest combined risk, being 21 percent more likely than light drinkers to suffer death or cancer during the course of the study.
The analysis is limited to older adults, but nonetheless provides evidence of the complex effects of drinking on risk of cancer and on overall health. The authors caution that their findings should not be interpreted as evidence of a protective effect of light drinking but hope that their research might inform public health guidelines.
Research Article: Kunzmann AT, Coleman HG, Huang W-Y, Berndt SI (2018) The association of lifetime alcohol use with mortality and cancer risk in older adults: A cohort study. PLoS Med 15(6): e1002585. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1002585
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