April 12, 2010 --Teenage and adolescent girls who regularly consume alcohol may be at greater risk for developing benign breast disease in their 20s than their teetotaling counterparts, Harvard researchers report in the May issue of Pediatrics. Benign breast disease or noncancerous lumps, bumps or cysts in the breast are known risk factors for breast cancer.
"These findings raise concern because alcohol intakes by college students has increased greatly in recent years, whereas drinking by adult women is one of few known dietary risk factors for breast cancer," conclude the researchers, who were led by Catherine S. Berkey, ScD, a lecturer in medicine at Harvard Medical School, and a research associate at Brigham and Women's Hospital, in Boston. "If future work confirms our findings, then clinical efforts to delay the onset of alcohol consumption may prevent some cases of benign breast disease and breast cancer."
Girls were aged 9 to 15 when the Growing Up Today Study began. They answered questionnaires from 1996 to 2001, and then again in 2003, 2005, and 2007. The questions about alcohol consumption in the previous year were a part of the 2003 survey.
During the 2005 and 2007 surveys, the participants were asked about benign breast disease; 147 women said they had been diagnosed with it and 67 of these women said this diagnosis was confirmed with a biopsy.
Those participants who drank alcohol six to seven days per week were more than five times as likely to develop benign breast disease as their counterparts who abstained. The teens and adolescent women who drank three to five days per week had three times the risk of developing benign breast disease as their counterparts who did not drink alcohol, the study showed.
Exactly how alcohol use during the teen years raises risk for benign breast disease is not fully understood, but the researchers speculate that alcohol use may increase levels of the female sex hormone estrogen, which may foster the development of benign lumps, bumps, and cysts in the breasts.
"The breasts of young girls are very active and if you give them extra hormones or alcohol, then they can respond by creating lumps and bumps and things in the category of benign breast disease, and if you keep this going, it can increase the risk of breast cancer," says Marisa Weiss, MD, the president and founder of advocacy group Breastcancer.org and the author of several books, including Taking Care of Your Girls: A Breast Health Guide for Girls, Teens, and In-Betweens. "You are laying the foundation for your future breast health during adolescence," says Weiss, who is also the director of Breast Radiation Oncology and the director of Breast Health Outreach at Lankenau Hospital in Wynnewood, Penn.
"The habits that you develop as an adolescent are likely to turn into lifelong habits, and we know that drinking in adult women is a risk factor for breast cancer," she says.