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Alcohol Linked to Cancer Risk in Women

Thursday, February 26, 2009 at 10:27 PM

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A little red wine is good for your heart, right? Not so fast. Thanks to Electronic Medical Records, a new large-scale study casts doubt on the benefits of moderate alcohol consumption, and has some doctors saying not only will it not help your heart, it might increase your risk of cancer. Gretchen Cuda reports.

Researchers have long known that cancer of the liver, pancreas and cancers of the throat are more common in people who drink, and throat cancers are especially common if drinkers are also smokers. However, studies linking alcohol to cancer have been small and controversial.

But a recent UK study of 1.3 million women found that even moderate alcohol use - as little as 1 to 2 drinks per week could increase a woman’s risk of cancer - and not just the types you’d expect.  A large number of breast cancer cases, the research found, are likely attributable to alcohol use. The study showed no difference between beer, wine and other alcoholic drinks.

Michael Lauer, formerly of the Cleveland Clinic, now heads the Division of Prevention and Populations Sciences at the National Heart, Lung and Blood institute.  He says that the link between breast cancer and alcohol has been seen before, but never in a study so large.

LAUER: what makes this study particularly remarkable is that the investigators were able to follow a huge number of subjects and follow them for a fairly long time and that’s the reason these results have to be taken very seriously

And the reason Lauer says UK researchers were able to do such a large and thorough study, is because all of the patients were tracked electronically using the country’s system of electronic medical records. It’s time he thinks for the American health care system to catch up.

LAUER: We should be able to do this kind of research in this country- this is a very important question whether or not alcohol consumption is safe.  And in order to be able to answer questions like this in a reasonably robust way, we need to be able to follow huge numbers of people, and we need to be able to do it relatively easily.  High quality, robust, health information technology will help make that possible.

If the current economic stimulus package is any indication, President Obama thinks so too.  Of the 787 billion dollars meant to reverse the current economic downturn, 19 billion dollars is slated to help develop a national system of electronic medical records. 

Records that could be used to answer the sorts of questions impossible to address with a clinical trial.  Randomly giving people alcoholic beverages and seeing how long it takes them to get sick is not exactly an option. But on the other hand, knowing whether a glass of red wine with dinner does more harm than good can have an enormous social impact.

In this case, the effects of alcohol weren’t ALL bad-- the study demonstrated that mouth and throat cancers were not linked to alcohol unless the drinkers were also smokers, and the risk of thyroid cancer, non-hodgkin’s lymphoma and renal cell cancer were actually LOWERED by moderate alcohol intake.  Still Lauer cautions women against thinking there is any real health advantage to alcohol

LAUER: I think the only safe advice that we can give them is to say, for sure, we cannot tell you that there is any benefit to alcohol and there may very well be risks, even at low levels…

and he says, that’s something women should keep in mind when deciding how much to drink

Gretchen Cuda, 90.3

Additional Audio

Listen to an interview with Dr. Michael Lauer

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