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 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,
Are some risks and benefits of alcohol different for women than for men?
Research suggests there is a gender gap when it comes to drinking alcohol
and health risks, but experts tend to disagree on the extent of it. For
instance, Klatsky says, "even light to moderate drinking is associated with
female breast cancer. [But] for men we could say light to moderate drinking in
all likelihood is not related to risk of cancer. It's not protective but it
won't increase risk.''
That may be generally true, Rogg says, but other individual factors, such as
living in an area where pollutants are at a high level, may boost cancer