February 15, 2013

Alcohol is a significant contributor to cancer deaths in the US, say researchers

Researchers from the Boston University School of Medicine and Boston University School of Public Healthhave found evidence that alcohol is a significant contributor to cancer deaths in the United States. Their findings suggest that lowering alcohol consumption is a crucial cancer prevention strategy, as alcohol is a known cancer-causing agent even when imbibed in seemingly insignificant amounts.

An August 17, 2012, Gallup poll found that Americans average approximately 4.2 drinks per week. However, the World Health Organization reported in March 2012 that adults in Europe average three standard alcoholic drinks per day. Regardless, researchers contend that even the consumption of tiny amounts of alcohol can be unhealthy.

Previous studies consistently have revealed that alcohol consumption is a serious risk factor for cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus and liver. More recent research has also revealed that alcohol raises the risk of cancers of the colon, rectum and female breast. Researchers note, however, that there is an abundance of literature on cancer-related deaths around the globe and a dearth of literature discussing cancer-related deaths in the U.S.

Dr. Timothy Naimi, from the Department of Medicine at Boston University School of Medicine, and colleagues took a look at recent data from the U.S. on alcohol consumption and cancer-related deaths. They discovered that alcohol led to about 20,000 cancer deaths per year, meaning that alcohol contributes to approximately 3.5 percent of all cancer deaths in the U.S.
They found that breast cancer was the most common cause of alcohol-attributable cancer deaths in woman, accounting for about 15 percent of all breast cancer deaths. In Men, they discovered that cancers of the mouth, throat and esophagus were common causes of alcohol-attributable cancer deaths, accounting for approximately 6,000 annual deaths. 

Interestingly, the study also revealed that each alcohol-related cancer death added up to an average of 18 years of potential life lost. Although higher levels of alcohol consumption led to a higher cancer risk, researchers contend that average consumption of 1.5 drinks per day or less made up 30 percent of all alcohol-attributable cancer deaths.

Currently, the U.S. National Library of Medicine defines moderate drinking as one drink a day for women or anyone over 65 and two drinks a day for men under 65. “Moderate drinking is probably safe” and “It may even have health benefits” read several excerpts from MedlinePlus’ (a service of the U.S. NLM) page on alcohol.

While researchers have debated the risks and/or benefits of alcohol consumption for years (i.e., potential health benefits of red wine and other types of alcohol), this study suggests that lowering alcohol consumption should be a key part of any health official’s cancer prevention strategy.

Dr. Naimi says that the relationship between alcohol and cancer “is not widely appreciated by the public.” He even posits that this relationship is “underemphasized” by physicians.

The study’s findings are described in a recent issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

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