FAQ: Alcohol and Your Health
Experts answer questions about the impact of drinking on cancer risk, heart health, and more.
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
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
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
"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
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,