Once again women are thrown into a quandary by today’s BIG headlines about the possible competing health risks of alcohol. A large research study observing over 70,000 women in the Kaiser Permanente Health Plan of California found that women who drank between one and two alcoholic drinks per day increased their risk of breast cancer by 10 percent compared with light drinkers who drank less than one drink a day. The risk of breast cancer increased by 30 percent in women who drank more than three drinks a day. They found no difference between wine, beer or spirits in the risk of developing breast cancer.
For someone (such as me) who enjoys a glass of wine almost daily and has a strong family history of heart disease - THIS IS GREAT NEWS!!! The risk to the breast of drinking a little alcohol was even lower than I suspected from other studies such as the Nurses Health Study. The Kaiser researchers found only a very small increased risk of breast cancer in women who drank 1-2 drinks daily (10% may sound important but even if it was statistically significant, this represents a very small increased risk).
Drinking 3 or more drinks a day was associated with a modest increased risk of 30% of breast cancer. HOWEVER NO ONE IS SUGGESTING WOMEN DRINK THREE OR MORE DRINKS DAILY (we don’t even suggest 2 drinks a day for women). Three drinks a day is not good for our hearts, our breasts, our overall health (not to mention our waistlines and sleep) and our safety (drinking a driving is a huge concern). As a doctor, I have always counseled women to drink no more than a glass of wine a day because of the MANY health risks of heavy drinking (three drinks a day counts as heavy drinking).
So why the big headlines?? What do we know that we didn’t already know before? Nothing really. But I am already preparing for the rush of emails asking me about this study and the safety of alcohol. I am also thinking of the talk I just gave at a women’s conference in Bowling Green, Kentucky this week where I talked about the benefits of modest drinking to heart health. I reminisced about my grandmother who had a small glass of sherry at night to help her sleep – and she lived into her 80’s. The middle-aged women in the audience were relieved and cheered when I discussed the benefits of modest alcohol (I was reminded after the talk that Kentucky produced 90% of the world’s bourbon so they were happy to hear that the heart benefits of any type of liquor was the same as long as it was in moderation).
So do I have to change my tune (or my presentation) after today’s news? NO – in fact I am more reassured than ever that for women who drink one or fewer drinks a day the overall benefit of a glass of alcohol is for real.
The Kaiser researchers and many others have long been aware of the benefits of modest alcohol use to heart health including a rise in the healthy HDL cholesterol, reduced blood clotting and reduced insulin resistance and diabetes. Recently the American Heart Association has issued alcohol guidelines noting that women who drink up to a single drink of any liquor daily (men get to drink up to 2 drinks or so) will benefit their heart. They specifically did not recommend however that people who don’t drink start drinking because heart health can be achieved through so many ways including diet and exercise.
The Kaiser researchers further stated, “We think that the heart protection benefit from alcohol is real, and is probably derived largely from alcohol-induced higher HDL (‘good’) cholesterol, reduced blood clotting and reduced diabetes….The possible but unproven additional coronary benefit from drinking wine (red or white) may be related to favorable drinking patterns common among wine drinkers or to the favorable traits of wine drinkers, as evidenced by other United States and Danish studies”.
They concluded that all medical advice needed to be personalized to the individual. “Our findings provide more evidence for why heavy drinkers should quit or cut down.” So my Healthy Dose of common sense is precisely that as well: Heavy drinkers should quit or cut back. Young women should not drink – or drink very little. Drinking during pregnancy is always dangerous and some researchers believe that alcohol may be hazardous to young breast tissue as well. The list of alcohol’s adverse effects on our youth would take up a few pages.
For the rest of us older women (and men) who enjoy an occasional drink as a part of a healthy lifestyle – go for it!!
As always, I look forward to your comments.