Drinking Increases Risk for All Cancers, New Study Shows

By Amanda Sangster - September 06, 2022

A study published last month in JAMA Network Open found that people who increased their alcohol consumption experienced an increased risk for all cancers, including alcohol-related cancers.

The study looked at more than 4.5 million beneficiaries from the Korean National Health Insurance Service. Study participants were 40 or older and had previously taken part in screenings from 2009 to 2011. The researchers examined the association between changes in alcohol consumption over two years and the future risk of cancer.

“We found that individuals who increased their alcohol consumption, regardless of their baseline drinking level, had an increased incidence of alcohol-related and all cancers compared with those who sustained their current level of drinking,” the study authors wrote.

portrait of blockquote author

"It is important to develop a better understanding of how modifying alcohol intake may be associated with risk for developing cancer."

- Dr. Doratha Byrd, Cancer Epidemiology Program

"Quitting was not associated with a lower incidence of alcohol-related cancer, but if abstinence was maintained over time, the incidence of alcohol-related and all cancers tended to decrease,” they said. “Reducing drinking from heavy to moderate or mild levels was associated with a decreased risk of alcohol-related and all cancers."

Screening Definition Alcohol Consumption
 None  0 g/d
 Mild  < 15 g/d
 Moderate  15-29.9 g/d
 Heavy  ≥ 30 g/d

The study also found that nondrinkers who became mild, moderate or heavy drinkers experienced a high incidence of stomach, liver, gallbladder and lung cancers, multiple myeloma and leukemia.

“Alcohol intake is an important modifiable cancer risk factor with numerous potential effects that may promote development of cancer, such as by generating oxidative stress,” says Dr. Doratha Byrd, an assistant member in Moffitt Cancer Center’s Cancer Epidemiology Program. “It is important to develop a better understanding of how modifying alcohol intake may be associated with risk for developing cancer. The findings in this study suggest that reducing alcohol intake may be beneficial toward lowering cancer risk.”

According to an accompanying editorial in JAMA Open Network from experts at the National Cancer Institute, the study is notable for the size of the cohort, large number of cases and the two previous screenings. However, they did recognize limitations within the study, which included not having details about participants’ alcohol intake earlier in life and the inability to examine long-term changes.

The study also failed to account for other healthy behaviors that could’ve occurred simultaneously with the participants’ decreased alcohol consumption that could have impacted the risk of cancer. The editorial authors also noted that further research was needed in other racial and ethnic groups considering that there was no discussion regarding an enzyme associated with both alcohol intake and cancer risk that is specifically associated with East Asian populations.

Despite the limitations of the study, the NCI experts agreed these findings about alcohol consumption and cancer risk were important and noteworthy. “Future studies should follow these authors’ lead and examine the association between alcohol intake and cancer risk in other populations and using longer intervals between assessments,” the editorial said.

Alcohol consumption, especially heavy or binge drinking, is known to be an important contributor to the development of some cancers, including head and neck, gastrointestinal and among women, breast cancer. Previous studies have linked alcohol use to multiple cancers, including esophagus, liver and breast.

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