Doctors have noted five medical conditions that are of great concern to women: heart disease, breast cancer, osteoporosis, depression and autoimmune diseases. Scientific research has identified particular risk factors for each disease, which helps inform women about steps they can take to protect themselves.
Among the major health concerns they’re facing, breast cancer may be on the minds of women more than any other. This is quite understandable, since it can have far-reaching implications for mental and physical health. It is also second only to lung cancer as the leading cause of death for women.
Alcohol consumption is estimated to be a contributing factor in tens of thousands of breast cancer diagnoses each year. Furthermore, drinking is also associated with an increased risk of disease recurrence in women with early-stage breast cancer.
Women and Alcohol
It’s true that men are more likely to drink alcohol than women and to develop problems because of their drinking, but women are much more vulnerable to alcohol’s harmful effects.
Women tend to develop alcohol-related diseases and other consequences of drinking more quickly than men, and after drinking smaller amounts of alcohol. Those who drink more than light to moderate amounts of alcohol—more than about 7 drinks a week—are at increased risk of cancer, hypertension, stroke and suicide.
There are also the well-known risks of drinking associated with women who are pregnant. Research has shown that heavy drinking during pregnancy can cause birth defects. While the potential harm of small amounts of alcohol on a developing baby are not well understood, doctors point out there is no amount that has been proven safe while pregnant.
Studies also show that women are more likely to abuse alcohol or become alcohol dependent in order to self-medicate problems such as depression, anxiety and stress or to cope with emotional difficulties.
Alcohol and Breast Cancer
According to the National Cancer Institute, more than 100 epidemiologic studies have examined the association between alcohol consumption and the risk of breast cancer in women.
These studies have consistently found an increased risk of breast cancer associated with increased alcohol intake. Women who drank more than three drinks per day (about 45 grams) had 1.5 times higher risk than nondrinkers. Each additional 10 grams of alcohol per day, roughly the amount in one 4-oz glass of wine, raised the relative risk of developing breast cancer over a lifetime by about 10 percent.
To illustrate it another way, if a woman drinks no alcohol during her lifetime, the overall risk of breast cancer is almost 9 in 100. Two drinks per day increase the risk to just over 10 in 100, and six drinks a day advances her risk to about 13 in 100.
Alcohol and Cancer-Causing Genes
Researchers at the University of Houston have discovered new evidence linking alcohol to breast cancer, which had not been identified in other studies.
The evidence established a direct link between alcohol, estrogen and a cancer-causing gene in promoting cancer cell growth. Alcohol increases estrogen-induced cell production, which drives the growth of breast cancer cells. The study also found that alcohol diminishes the effects of the cancer drug Tamoxifen on blocking estrogen by increasing the levels of a cancer-causing gene called BRAF.
The knowledge gained from this study will be put to good use in breast cancer prevention efforts. But the director of the study, Chin-Yo Lin, says their findings also have additional implications for women who are undergoing hormone replacement therapy for menopause, since alcohol can affect the actions of the hormones they take to manage their symptoms.