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Moderate alcohol consumption may increase the risk of cancer, study finds

There are long-term health risks associated with drinking alcohol

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A new study conducted by researchers from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health explored how alcohol can affect consumers’ health and wellness. According to their findings, having as few as two drinks per day can increase the risk of developing several different types of cancer

“Alcohol consumption causes a substantial burden of cancer globally,” said researcher Dr. Isabelle Soerjomataram. “Yet the impact on cancers is often unknown or overlooked, highlighting the need for implementation of effective policy and interventions to increase public awareness of the link between alcohol use and cancer risk, and decrease overall alcohol consumption to prevent the burden of alcohol-attributable cancers.”  

The link between alcohol and cancer

For the study, the researchers analyzed data on alcohol consumption, alcohol sales, and long-term health outcomes for consumers around the world. The group noted a clear link between moderate alcohol consumption and an increased risk of cancer; having one to two drinks per day was associated with a higher risk of oral, colon, and breast cancers. 

“All drinking involves risk,” said researcher Dr. Jürgen Rehm. “And with alcohol-related cancers, all levels of consumption are associated with some risk. For example, each standard sized glass of wine per day is associated with a 6% higher risk for developing female breast cancer.” 

Moderate alcohol consumption was specifically linked with the highest risk of breast cancer among consumers in Canada. The researchers learned that having as many as two drinks per day was associated with a 24% increase in breast cancer cases for Canadians in 2020. On a global scale, moderate drinkers made up nearly 15% of all new cancer diagnoses last year. 

“Alcohol causes cancer in numerous ways,” said researcher Dr. Kevin Shield. “The main mechanism of how alcohol causes cancer is through impairing DNA repair. Additional pathways include chronic alcohol consumption resulting in liver cirrhosis, and alcohol leading to a dysregulation of sex hormones, leading to breast cancer. Alcohol also increases the risk of head and neck cancer for smokers as it increases the absorption of carcinogens from tobacco.”

COVID-19 and alcohol consumption

Many consumers have increased their alcohol intake over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. While some of this excessive drinking may be linked to heightened stress over the last year, the researchers worry about how these habits will impact consumers’ long-term health. 

“In our clinic we are seeing many people who report increased alcohol use since the onset of the pandemic,” said researcher Dr. Leslie Buckley. “Although this may be related to temporary stressors, there is a potential for new habits to become more permanent. The consequences with alcohol use are often subtle harms initially that take time to show themselves, while long-term consequences such as cancer, liver disease, and substance use disorder can be devastating.” 

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