Monday, April 11, 2011

Alcohol and cancer

Popped up in the news then pretty much vanished was the story linking alcohol consumption and cancer. My first thought was "Is it the alcohol?" Consider that someone who drinks might often frequent a public house; which until only recently was a smoke-filled area. However a look at the paper shows they've tried to weed all that out.

As such we're left with alcohol causes cancer - how exactly. Who better to turn to then Cancer Research.

Acetaldehyde - this is considered to be a reason for hangovers; no proof that I know of. This is processed mainly in the liver and can cause both liver damage (covering cirrhosis) and replication failure. However these things occur naturally anyway. Alcohol increases the likelihood of such, but only in a minor fashion. Like a paper cut can increase the risk of infection.

Hormones - alcohol consumption can interfere with the glands that produce hormones and this can indeed lead to cancers... in alcohol abusers.

Tobacco - alcohol consumption does make it easier to absorb cancer-causing elements in tobacco. Which is why there's an increased risk for those who both drink and smoke.

Folate - those who drink tend to have lower folate levels and have increased cancer risks. However, again to my knowledge, there's no direct link between folate and cancer. Alcohol impairs the ability of the body to absorb folic acid. Therefore if a low folate level does lead to cancers than alcohol will increase that risk in alcohol abusers or those who don't have a rich enough diet.

But back to the study - what does it purport to show? Of the 178, 578 cases in 2008 that are stated to be alcohol-related 18.5% were caused by consuming above the recommended limit (3 units) per day. For women that figure drops to 4.4%. Except those are percentages of the total European population of the countries examined.

That total population is 357,868,665. So the absolute risk of alcohol-related cancer is 0.05% about 10 in 22,000; of which drinking over the limit is 2 in 22,000 for men. For women it's about 24 in 22,000 and 1 in 22,000. Total risk for both is 35 per 22,000 and 3 per 22,000

Just to point out that seems to suggest that drinking under the limit is 4 times as risky as drinking over it. It isn't, but that's because there are other factors that aren't shown here to be taken into account.

Essentially if you drink over the limit every day (with no other factors) your risk appears to be 1 in 7,000 that you'll develop an alcohol-related cancer, which is a slightly smaller risk than you having a fatal motor vehicle accident this year (1 in 5,800 USA statistics).