We had been pretty smug about drinking a glass of red wine with dinner. It certainly helps to relieve stress and, some studies suggest, reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease and might extend life spans.
So we were dismayed when epidemiologists at Oxford University recently concluded that women who drink even a moderate amount of alcohol — fewer than three drinks a day — increase their risk of contracting several cancers compared with women who drink no more than two drinks a week.
The researchers studied almost 1.3 million middle-aged women who attended breast cancer screening clinics in Britain and were tracked for an average of seven years. Women who reported drinking moderate amounts of alcohol suffered an increased risk of cancers of the breast, liver, rectum and, among current smokers, the upper aero-digestive tract. Each additional drink increased the risk, and it did not matter whether the alcohol was red or white wine, beer or hard liquor.
Not all of their conclusions were that grim. The study found that moderate drinking decreased the risk of thyroid cancer, renal cell cancer and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. More confusingly, it showed that women who weren’t drinking at all when the research started actually had a higher rate of cancer than women who drank up to six drinks a week.
That hardly proves that moderate drinking cuts the risk of cancer, but it sure muddies the water. No one has yet determined whether any potential cancer risks from moderate drinking outweigh the possible, though disputed, health gains from a glass of red wine. When the final tally of risks and benefits is in, let us hope there is room for women to have a convivial drink with friends or a romantic dinner with wine.