A study from New Zealand shows that 30 percent of alcohol–related deaths are from cancer, and 60 percent of those deaths are from breast cancer. One third of these deaths were associated with an average of fewer than two drinks a day (Drug Alcohol Rev, June 16, 2016).
However, the more you drink, the more likely you are to develop certain cancers. Alcohol increases risk for cancers of the oropharynx, larynx, esophagus, liver, colon, rectum, breast, cervix, vulva, vagina, skin, bladder, lung, stomach, skin, prostate and pancreas, and for leukemia and multiple myeloma.
In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that alcohol kills more than 88,000 people each year and has shortened the lives of those who died by an average of 30 years (CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, March 13, 2014). Alcohol also causes one in 10 deaths among working-age adults aged 20-64 years, and the health damage it causes costs $223.5 billion, or $1.90 per drink.
The Link Between Alcohol and Cancer
Alcohol is broken down only by your liver, which converts it to acetaldehyde, a substance that can damage cells’ genetic material called DNA to stop apoptosis, which can cause cancer. Alcohol and acetaldehyde can damage any living tissue they touch. The risk for cancer increases with the amount of alcohol that comes in contact with that tissue. Alcoholic beverages first touch the mouth and then the esophagus; therefore, these areas are at high risk for alcohol-induced cancers. Alcohol reaches the colon, rectum, and liver later so the link between these cancers and alcohol is not as strong.
Smoking Increases Cancer Risk from Alcohol
The risk for cancers of the mouth, throat, and esophagus is much higher if you drink and smoke than if you use either alcohol or tobacco alone. The more you drink and smoke, the greater your risk (Int J Cancer, 2011;128:533-540).
Definition of a Drink
In all of these studies, a “drink” is defined as the amount of alcohol that it takes an average person’s liver one hour to clear half of the alcohol from the bloodstream. That amount is 0.6 ounces (14.0 grams or 1.2 tablespoons) of pure alcohol, which would be:
- 12 ounces of beer (5 percent alcohol content)
- 8 ounces of malt liquor (7 percent alcohol content)
- 5 ounces of wine (12 percent alcohol content)
- 1.5 ounces of 80-proof (40 percent alcohol content) liquor (e.g., gin, rum, vodka, whiskey)
However, the amount of alcohol a person’s liver can clear varies with body weight, sex, age, metabolic rate, recent food intake, the type and strength of the alcohol, and any medication you take, so your “drink” size may be different from the average.
One Alcoholic Drink per Day is Associated with Increased Cancer Risk
A review of 222 articles, following 92,000 light drinkers and 60,000 non-drinkers, showed that taking even one alcoholic drink a day is associated with increased risk for cancer of the mouth and throat, esophagus and breast (Annals of Oncology, Feb 2013; 24(2):301-308). Thirty-seven percent of North American adults take up to two drinks a day. Many have the mistaken belief that it is safe and even healthful for women to take up to one drink per day and for men to take up to two drinks per day. An additional 28 percent of North Americans drink more than that.
Moderate Drinking Has Not Been Shown to Prevent Heart Attacks
For many years, the wine, beer and alcoholic beverage industries have promoted studies showing that alcohol helps to prevent heart attacks. Their studies appeared to show that taking one to two drinks a day is associated with reduced risk for heart attacks.
However, drinking alcohol regularly is associated with high blood pressure, heart failure, sudden death and stroke. Studies that compare “moderate drinkers” with “non-drinkers” are deceptive because more than half of the people who call themselves non-drinkers are recovering alcoholics or people who had been told to stop drinking because they already have health problems.
Scientists reviewed 87 published studies on the effects of alcohol on death rates and found that all but 13 of these studies had a non-drinker group that included people who were told not to drink because they already had liver, heart or kidney disease, high blood pressure, heart attacks, certain cancers, alcoholism, stomach ulcers, or other major health problems (Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, March 2016;77(2):185–198). When people with alcohol-related diseases were removed from the abstainer group, moderate drinkers did not have a lower incidence of these diseases than the non-drinkers.
Researchers at the University of Victoria in British Columbia reviewed 54 studies and found that only seven of those studies corrected their non-drinking population for people who had been told to stop drinking for health reasons (Addiction Research and Theory, April 2006). The Canadian researchers re-analyzed 47 studies that associated wine or other alcohol with a longer life and decreased risk for heart attacks.
When the studies were corrected to remove the people who had been ordered to stop drinking for health reasons, they found no benefit for the moderate drinkers compared to healthy non-drinkers. Another study, which followed 53,000 men and women ages 50 and older for six to 10 years, found that alcohol has no demonstrable health benefits and does not prolong life (British Medical Journal, February 10, 2015).
Recent research shows that taking just one drink increases heart attack risk for the next hour (Circulation, March 4, 2016).
Alcohol Increases Stroke Risk
Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol increases a middle-aged person’s chances of suffering a stroke as much as high blood pressure or diabetes does. Those who take in more than two drinks a day have a 34 percent increased risk of stroke compared to those who take in less than half a drink (Stroke, Jan. 29, 2015). Those who take in more than two drinks a day in their 50s and 60s suffer strokes earlier in life than light drinkers or non-drinkers.
Alcohol Increases Risk of Permanent Liver Damage
Drinking alcohol regularly increases risk for permanent liver damage called cirrhosis (Journal of Hepatology, January 26, 2015). Wine is associated with a lower risk for liver damage than beer or liquor. The authors of this study warn that older drinkers are more likely to have health conditions affected by alcohol or to take medicines that impair their ability to metabolize alcohol.
Long-Term Health Risks from Alcohol
In addition to the immediate risks of harm from alcohol (accidents, violence, poor judgment), regular alcohol consumption increases risk for:
- High blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, liver disease, stomach ulcers
- Many types of cancer including breast, prostate, mouth, esophagus, stomach, liver and colon
- Learning and memory problems (dementia, poor work or school performance)
- Emotional problems, social problems and alcoholism
Gabe Mirkin, M.D., is a sports medicine doctor and fitness guru. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin has run more than 40 marathons and is now a serious tandem bike rider with his wife, Diana. His website is http://drmirkin.com/. Click to read Gabe’s full bio.