image for breast cancer and alcohol Thanks to decades of medical research, today’s consumers are armed with more information than ever before on how to lead healthful lives in an effort to prevent disease. Lifestyle factors, such as diet, exercise, and smoking, are often studied for their effects on disease risk. Another lifestyle factor—alcohol consumption—can also influence disease risk, and when it comes to the risk of breast cancer, the latest research is showing that consuming alcohol may increase that risk.

Overall Risk Factors

Drinking alcohol is one of many risk factors for breast cancer . It’s important to note that a woman who has one or more risk factors for breast cancer will not necessarily get the disease. If she does get the disease, it doesn’t mean that those particular risk factors actually caused her cancer.

Some of the risk factors for breast cancer include the following:

  • Age (over 50)
  • Genetics
  • Prior history of breast cancer
  • Family history of breast cancer and genetic factors
  • Early age of menstruation (before age 12)
  • Late age of menopause (after age 50)
  • Obesity and high-fat diets
  • Hormone replacement therapy
  • Exposure to ionizing radiation
  • Environment factors
  • Alcohol

Research Findings

Due to relatively recent research findings, the American Cancer Society is recommending that women at risk for breast cancer limit their alcohol consumption.

Researchers in England, who evaluated data from 53 previously published studies on alcohol and breast cancer, conducted one of the most recent studies. The review included data on more than 153,000 women and found a slightly increased relative risk (6%) of breast cancer in women who drank one drink per day compared with women who did not drink. Increased alcohol consumption translated to increased risk.

The American Cancer Society Cancer Prevention Study, also found an association between alcohol consumption and increased risk of breast cancer in postmenopausal women. The researchers found that drinking an average of one drink per day or less was associated with a 30% increase in risk of dying from breast cancer compared with drinking no alcohol. No risk increase was found in premenopausal women or in women about to enter menopause.

Other studies have suggested that women who drink alcohol and who have normal levels of folic acid may be somewhat protected from the increased risk of developing breast cancer. Studies have also shown that women who drink moderately and take hormone replacement therapy may have an even higher risk of developing breast cancer.

Overall, there is consistent evidence that moderate to high level of alcohol consumption ( ≥three drinks) is associated with higher incidence of breast cancer compared to no drinking. There is also consistent evidence that the higher the dose of alcohol the higher the risk, even as low as one to two drinks per day.

Minimizing Risk—and Keeping a Healthy Perspective

There are no hard-and-fast guidelines regarding alcohol consumption with regard to breast cancer. That’s partly because more research is necessary. It’s also because each woman’s risk profile for breast cancer is different, and therefore, each individual woman must consider her risk factors together with her doctor and decide which lifestyle modifications may be necessary.

The research seems to indicate that sporadic or “social” drinking of less than one drink per day is not likely to greatly affect breast cancer risk. Moderate drinking, which is defined for women as one drink per day, may, according to some research, increase risk slightly. Heavier drinking might or might not impart a greater risk.

If you’re concerned about alcohol and your risk for breast cancer, see your doctor and discuss what your individual risk factors may be. Researchers point out that it’s important to weigh the pros and cons of alcohol consumption with regard not only to breast cancer, but to other conditions, as well. For example, some research indicates that moderate drinking may be associated with protection against cardiovascular disease; on the other hand, alcohol may increase the risk for liver disease and cancers of the mouth and throat.

Risk stratification, or determining priorities in social behaviors (such as drinking alcohol), is very important when making choices about health. For instance, it is far more likely that a postmenopausal woman will die of heart disease than breast cancer; therefore, if drinking alcohol is cardioprotective, then perhaps it is better to slightly increase the risk of the less likely development of breast cancer. Every woman has her own unique risk portfolio, and a physician should help make the most appropriate choices to improve as many elements of that portfolio as possible.

Remember, too, that alcohol consumption is just one of many lifestyle factors that may influence disease. Eating a healthful diet, exercising regularly, and not smoking—while not all necessarily related to breast cancer risk—are all important for overall health and well-being.