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FAQ: Alcohol and Your Health

Experts answer questions about the impact of drinking on cancer risk, heart health, and more.
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What is the best advice about drinking alcohol if you only consider alcohol's effect on heart health?

Again, there is not a one-size-fits-all answer, Klatsky says. He gives hypothetical case histories to make the point.

Take a 60-year-old man who has given up smoking but has a family history of heart attacks, a less-than-ideal cholesterol level, and no dependency problems with alcohol. If he likes a glass of wine with dinner, Klatsky says, "this man is better off continuing."

But a 25-year-old health-conscious woman with no risk factors for heart disease who drinks very little should not boost her wine intake just for heart health, Klatsky says. "It is not going to do any good heart-wise for 40 or 50 years."

For men 40 and older and women 50 and older "there are benefits [from alcohol] for heart health," he says. He's talking about moderate drinking, defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as no more than one drink a day for women and no more than two drinks a day for men. A drink is 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits.

What is the best advice about drinking alcohol if you only consider alcohol and cancer risk?

While recent studies about alcohol and cancer risk have uncovered new potential links, research about alcohol's effect on cancer risk date back many decades, says Susan Gapstur, PhD, MPH, vice president of epidemiology for the American Cancer Society, Atlanta. "There is a very clear link between alcohol consumption and cancer of the head and neck, particularly among cigarette smokers."

"We can confidently say that even moderate alcohol consumption is associated with a modestly higher risk for breast and colorectal cancer," she says. Her advice: "If you don't drink there is no reason to start. If you are someone who drinks and you're a woman, limit drinking to one a day; if a man, to two a day.''

If you are at high risk for cancer, she adds, you might consider limiting your alcohol intake to less than that.

A family history of some cancers might be reason to cut down or avoid alcohol, Rogg tells patients. "I think [for] people who have a family history of breast cancer or head and neck cancer, it would be much more advisable to abstain," he says, with the exception of special occasions such as an anniversary party. He makes that recommendation for men and women.

But those with a family history only of heart disease, he says, may be helping themselves by moderate drinking.

Those who have been diagnosed with head and neck cancer should completely abstain from alcohol, says Ellie Maghami, MD, a head and neck oncology surgeon at the City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Center, Duarte, Calif. Alcohol combined with tobacco especially boosts the risks for head and neck cancers, Maghami says.

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