Given that alcohol is a cause of several cancers, two recent studies report troubling trends on alcohol consumption in the United States.
Women drinkers closing in on men
The first study focused on Americans ages 60 and over. Aging is one of the main factors that increases cancer risk and this is a growing population. The number of older Americans is projected to almost double by 2050, reaching 112 million.
The study was published in the the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.
Study researchers reviewed data from approximately 147,000 participants who were part of the National Health Interview Surveys from 1997 to 2014. Close to half — 65,000 people — of the 60+ year olds reported they were current drinkers. Among both men and women during this time, the prevalence of drinkers increased. This increase was seen more among women then men.
Twenty years ago, 54 percent of older men and almost 38 percent of older women were current drinkers. In 2014 that rose to 60 percent for men and 47.5 percent for women. Compared to a 6 percent increase over 20 years by men, women had a nearly 10 percent increase over that same time.
That translates into a 0.7 percent increase in prevalence for men per year; for women there was a 1.6 percent increase yearly. The average number of drinks people had per day remained stable over the years, within both genders and all age groups.
Here, current drinking was defined as having 12 or more drinks at any point in the past and having consumed one or more drinks in the last year.
Binge drinking also trended upwards among women, increasing in the three youngest age groups (60 to 64, 65 to 69, 70 to 74), but not the older.
These findings indicate a need for alcohol-related public-health education, screening, and treatment for the growing older population, write the authors.
Low awareness of cancer-alcohol link
According to the latest AICR survey, fewer than four in ten American adults realize alcohol affects cancer risk, even as the evidence with alcohol as a cause of cancer has grown. The low awareness of the alcohol-cancer link is especially concerning given that it has dipped over the past 16 years, from 42 percent in 2001 to 39 percent today.
AICR research shows that alcohol increases the risk of six cancers: colorectal, breast, esophageal, liver, stomach and oral (technically mouth, larynx and pharynx cancers).
For breast, colorectal, oral and stomach cancers, the increased risk is seen at even low levels of regular drinking. For liver cancer, increased risk starts at three alcoholic drinks per day.
The evidence that all types of alcoholic drinks increase the risk of cancers has grown over the years. That list includes wine, beer, vodka and other hard liquors. The World Health Organization estimates that from approximately 4 percent to 25 percent of cancers are attributable to alcohol worldwide.
Combining alcohol with smoking is particularly harmful for mouth and throat cancers, dramatically raising the risk of these cancers as alcohol increases ability of tobacco carcinogens to get in to cells and create damage.
Binge drinking on the rise
The second study focused on binge drinking, finding that more than one in ten US adults are heavy binge drinkers. This study was published today online in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
Binge drinking is defined as having four or more drinks on an occasion for women, or 5 or more drinks on an occasion for men. This study analyzed three levels of past-year binge drinking that went up to 12 or more drinks at one time for women and 15 or more for men.
Researchers analyzed data from two large national epidemiologic surveys that examine alcohol use.
In 2012–2013, the latest data available, 39 percent of men reported having 5 to 9 alcoholic drinks at one time in the past year; 27 percent of women reported having 4 to 7 drinks. The highest level — three times the binge threshold — was seen among 7 percent of men and 3 percent of women.
Recommendation for cancer prevention
Because even small amounts of alcohol consumed regularly increases risk of some cancers, AICR recommends not drinking alcohol for cancer prevention. If you do drink alcohol, limit your intake to no more than two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women.
Sources: Leila Glass, Eileen M. Moore, Natacha Akshoomoff, Kenneth Lyons Jones, Edward P. Riley and Sarah N. Mattson. Academic Difficulties in Children with Prenatal Alcohol Exposure: Presence, Profile, and Neural Correlates. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, March 2017 DOI: 10.1111/acer.13365
Hingson, RW, Zha, W, White, A. M. Drinking Beyond the Binge Threshold: Predictors, Consequences, and Changes in the U.S. Am. J. Prev. Med. Online May 17, 2017.
World Cancer Research Fund/American Insitute for Cancer Research. Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity and the Prevention of Colorectal Cancer. 2011