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November 2, 2016 | 4 minute read

Women Drinking Increasing Amounts of Alcohol, More Cancer Risk

Women are now drinking almost as much alcohol as men, including heavy drinking, finds a large analysis of the global research spanning over a century.

The study, published in the journal BMJ Open, suggests that more women are putting themselves at greater risk of several cancers. AICR research shows that alcohol increases risk of six cancers: breast, colorectal, stomach, liver, mouth/throat, and esophageal.

For cancer prevention, AICR recommends to avoid alcohol. And if you do drink, limit alcohol to moderate amounts. Moderate amounts means 2 drinks for men and 1 for women a day.

Women catching up to men
Historically, men have consumed more alcohol than women overall, and drank amounts more closely linked to health problems. Aside from cancer, excessive alochol consumption can lead to liver and digestive conditions. In 2012, 3.3 million deaths —  6 percent of all global deaths (7.6 percent for men and 4 percent for women) — were due to alcohol consumption, according to the National Institutes of Health.

In this study, researchers pooled data from 68 international studies published between 1980 and 2014, with about a quarter of them spanning 20 or more years. Together, the studies included data from more than 4 million participants, representing people born from 1891 up to 2000.

All the studies included regional or national comparisons of men’s and women’s drinking patterns across at least two time periods.

The researchers used 11 key indicators of alcohol use and associated harms for their analysis. These were grouped into three broad categories: any use of alcohol, which included quantities and frequency; problematic use, which included binge/heavy drinking; and the prevalence of associated harms.

The pooled data showed that the gap between the sexes consistently narrowed across all three categories of any use, problematic use, and associated harms over time. Men born between 1891 and 1910 were approximately twice as likely as their female peers to drink alcohol. This gap had nearly disappeared among those born between 1991 and 2000.

The same patterns were evident for problematic use, where the gender gap fell from men drinking 3 times as much to almost the same, and for associated harms, where the gender gap fell from 3.6 times as much drinking to again, nearly equal.

The trend is most evident among young adults, the findings show. Overall, each successive group of people born every 5 years linked to about a 4 percent decrease in the ratio of male to female drinking, leading researchers to conclude that young women in particular should be the target of concerted efforts to reduce the impact of substance use and related harms.

The researchers also note that this study does not address whether alcohol use is falling among men or rising among women.

Alcohol-Cancer Link Low
According to the the latest AICR Cancer Risk Awareness Survey only 43 percent of Americans know that alcohol increases cancer risk.

Yet for breast cancer, both pre- and postmenopausal, even light drinking can increase a women’s risk. For each standard drink a day there appears to be approximately an 11 percent increase in postmenopausal breast cancer risk, for example. Risk increases for higher amounts. Women who are at high risk for breast cancer should consider not drinking any alcohol.

Scientists are still researching how alcohol plays a role in cancer. Alcohol or ethanol is a carcinogen, which could damage DNA and increase levels of hormones that promote cancer. Alcohol can also increase levels of estrogen and other hormones related to breast cancer development; and alcohol may inhibit folate absorption, which may increase risk. Research shows that alcohol is particularly harmful when combined with smoking.

This work was supported by the Australian Government under the Substance Misuse Prevention and Service Improvements Grants Fund; and a National Health and Medical Research Council Centre of Research Excellence Grant.

Source: Tim Slade et al. Birth cohort trends in the global epidemiology of alcohol use and alcohol-related harms in men and women: systematic review and metaregression. BMJ Open 2016;6:e011827. Published 24 October 2016

Alcohol Facts and Statistics: Updated January 2016; Revised June 2016

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