Heavy drinking may lead to more than alcoholism, according to recent studies. A report appearing online, to be published later in a print version of The International Journal of Cancer, revealed that women who drink an average of more than two alcoholic beverages a day double their chances of being diagnosed with endometrial cancer, compared with those who drink less. Benefits, however, have been seen in other studies for those who only drink moderately.
The study was conducted on a multiethnic group of 41,574 postmenopausal women, following each subject for an average of eight years. In that time, 324 individuals were diagnosed with endometrial cancer, or cancer of the lining of the uterus, and drinking and eating habits were evaluated based on questionnaires. After controlling for variables such as body mass index (BMI), age, hormone therapy and history of pregnancy, researchers found that those who consumed more than two alcoholic beverages a day — be they beer, wine or hard liquor — were twice as likely to get endometrial cancer as those who drank two or less.
For Texas women, this could be of vital importance. Texas isn’t exactly known for its lack of alcohol consumption, and every year, thousands of women in the state are diagnosed with gynecological cancers. While breast cancer beats endometrial for the annual tally of those diagnosed in Texas — breast is the third leading cancer diagnosis, behind lung and colon/rectal — it also stands a better chance of being cured without major surgery. And yet one-quarter of the state is living without health insurance, a circumstance that typically leads to less access to healthcare, according to recent studies conducted by the Commonwealth Fund. Despite having some of the nation’s best medical facilities located in Dallas, Houston, and Austin, many uninsured women do not have open access to them.
No one is sure why heavy alcohol consumption increases risk so much. The theory is that alcohol raises estrogen levels, which, in turn, increases mutations and DNA replication errors — precursors to cancer — over long periods of time.
“Relatively few studies have examined the relationship between endometrial cancer and drinking. If this is a true association, that’s one more lifestyle change women can make,” said Veronica Wendy Setiawan, lead researcher of the study and assistant professor of research at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California.
According to the National Cancer Institute, 40,000 women are hit with endometrial cancer in this country every year and over 7,000 will die. At this time, there is no known cure for the disease, though it is considered highly treatable if caught early; the solution is usually to remove the uterus itself and hope the cancer has not metastasized (i.e., spread to other parts of the body). Treatment can also include removing the fallopian tubes and ovaries, performing a pelvic lymph node dissection, and/or a laparoscopic lymph node sampling, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, and natural methods, such as herbs and acupuncture.
One might (logically) believe any alcohol consumption at all would increase the likelihood of most diseases, but various studies claim that consuming two or fewer alcoholic beverages a day carries no additional risk of endometrial cancer, and can actually improve overall health and memory, as well as reduce the chances of getting cardiovascular disease. Dr. Graham McDougall, associate professor of nursing at the University of Texas at Austin, and lead author of the study, “Older Women’s Cognitive and Affective Response to Moderate Drinking,” found that older women who drank moderately scored better on cognitive tests, such as remembering a story, route, or hidden object, future intentions, and connecting random numbers and letters. Other cognitive and psychological benefits were also observed.
“Moderate drinkers reported less depression, had higher self-reported health, performed better on instrumental everyday tasks, had stronger memory self-efficacy and improved memory performance,” said McDougall. McDougall’s study, part of a larger University of Texas project funded by the National Institutes of Health, shocked many. He claimed that moderate drinkers also scored higher on tests designed to measure attention, concentration, psychomotor skills, verbal-associative capacities, and oral fluency. “In addition to their actual performance on tests,” said McDougall, “the confidence of those who drank was higher and they used more strategies to facilitate memory.”
Dr. McDougall was careful, however, not to encourage alcohol consumption, and reminded the public that physical and psychological issues were actually aggravated by heavy drinking; i.e., more than two drinks per day. That would also seem to hold true for the risk of endometrial cancer, as well, with two drinks sitting right on the cusp of “risky.” In other words, non-addicts might just be better off, psychologically, as well as physically, having a glass of wine at night, but one shouldn’t get too excited. Heavy drinking is still, after all, heavy drinking.