“Alcohol” by zeevveez is licensed under CC BY 2.0

How Does Alcohol Affect Risk of Cancer or Premature Death?

MedicalResearch.com Interview with:
“Alcohol” by zeevveez is licensed under CC BY 2.0Andrew Kunzmann
Research Fellow
Queen’s Universit

MedicalResearch.com: What is the background for this study?  

Response: We decided to conduct this research because the messages about the health effects linked to light-moderate drinking are less consistent. Previous studies suggest that light-moderate drinking is linked to an increased risk of cancer but a lower risk of mortality than never drinking. The international guidelines around what constitutes drinking in moderation also differ, with UK guidelines now recommending intakes below 6 pints of beer or 175ml glasses of wine per week (equivalent to less than 1 per day) but other guidelines recommending intakes of 2 drinks or less per day. We wanted to see what the risk of getting either of these conditions (cancer or mortality) were to give a more comprehensive and less confusing message about the health effects of light-moderate drinking.

This was part of a well-established collaboration between Queen’s University Belfast and the National Cancer Institute in the US. We used data from a cancer screening trial in the US that contained data on over 100,000 people from the US, who were free from cancer at the start of the study and who completed a questionnaire asking how much alcohol they consumed at different periods of their adult life. This was then linked to data over an average of 9 years after they completed the questionnaire to see which individuals developed cancer or died from any cause. We then assessed whether risk of cancer and mortality differed based on lifetime alcohol intakes after accounting for a number of other factors such as age, educational attainment, smoking and dietary intakes.

MedicalResearch.com: What are the main findings?

Response: The results suggested that light drinkers, who consumed less than 7 drinks per week, were at the lowest combined risk of getting cancer or dying earlier. However, risk began to increase for each additional drink per week consumed. The results were based on US standard drink sizes but differences to larger glasses of wine or pints of beer would be minimal at lower intakes.

MedicalResearch.com: What should readers take away from your report? 

Response: It is not our intention to tell people whether they can or can’t drink. We simply aim to provide them with reliable evidence so that they can make their own informed, healthy decisions. The main messages would be that if someone is currently drink more than 7 alcoholic drinks per week, then reducing alcohol intakes may help them to reduce their risk of cancer or premature death. The results hopefully reassure light drinkers that they’re not increasing their risk of major health outcomes. However, the results perhaps suggest that we won’t be able to justify that second drink in the evening as being beneficial for our health. If more people choose to reduce their alcohol intakes slightly, then we should see less families affected by cancer and other major health conditions.

We don’t think that these results should encourage non-drinkers to start drinking alcohol, as the mechanisms for health benefits are still undecided and the reduced risk may reflect drinkers being healthier for other reasons.

MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this work? 

Response: We think that the research is becoming increasingly consistent as to the health impacts of light drinking and as to what “drinking in moderation” is. What seems less certain is how we can best help people that want to reduce their drinking to achieve their goals. Very often people drink alcohol as a coping mechanism during stressful periods of their life. Future research should also study if governments can do more to help people achieve their goals of reducing alcohol intakes, without dictating whether people can or can’t drink.

MedicalResearch.com: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Response: In summary, the evidence is clearer than ever that reducing alcohol intakes to less than 7 drinks per day might help people reduce their risk of getting cancer or dying early.

Disclosures: We have no links to industry or any other conflicts of interest to report.


Andrew T. Kunzmann, Helen G. Coleman, Wen-Yi Huang, Sonja I. Berndt. The association of lifetime alcohol use with mortality and cancer risk in older adults: A cohort study. PLOS Medicine, 2018; 15 (6): e1002585 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1002585

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Last Updated on June 21, 2018 by Marie Benz MD FAAD