The Link Between Drinking Age and Breast Cancer and Benign Breast Disease

Phyllis Johnson Health Guide
  • Today a young woman will turn 21.  Tonight she will go to a restaurant or bar and order her first legal drink.  Probably her friends will buy her so many drinks to celebrate her attaining legal drinking age that she will go home drunk.  Likely this will not be the first time she has gotten drunk.  There is a very good chance that she has been drinking for years.  According to a Center for Disease Control survey, during one 30 day period, 39% of high school students drank some amount of alcohol and 22% binge drank.


    We have known for a long time that alcohol increases breast cancer risk, and PJ Hamel has written about the ways alcohol correlates to breast cancer deaths.  Approximately 6,000 breast cancer deaths a year are alcohol related.  That’s about 15% of breast cancer deaths that could have been prevented.

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    A new study shows that it is not just alcohol use that is important.  It is the age at which the alcohol is consumed that matters.  Research done at the Washington School of Medicine in St. Louis, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard School of Public Health used data from 91,005 female registered nurses, aged 25-44 years collected as part of the Nurses' Health Study II.


    In 1989, the women were asked about their alcohol use at four specific periods in their lives:  15-17, 18-22, 23-30, and 31-40.  Then they were followed for 20 years.  The results showed that the more alcohol a female drank between her first menstrual cycle and her first full-term pregnancy, the higher her risk of both breast cancer and benign breast disease.  Women in the study who averaged one alcoholic drink per day between their first menstrual cycle and their first full-term pregnancy increased their risk of breast cancer by 13%.  Drinking more than one drink increased the risk.


    The study also found that for every serving of alcohol consumed daily, women’s risk of proliferative benign breast disease increased by 15%.  This group of non-cancerous conditions is characterized by an increase in growth of breast cells.  Having a form of proliferative benign breast disease increases breast cancer risk by 500% according to the study.


    Between the tendency of teens to drink at younger ages and the tendency of women to delay their first pregnancy, many women are expanding their period of risk.  The researchers believe that breast tissue is particularly susceptible to carcinogens like alcohol between puberty and pregnancy.


    This research may reassure older women who are trying to balance the possible beneficial effects of a glass of red wine for heart health with the known breast cancer risk from alcohol.  Apparently, it is the alcohol they consumed in their youth that is more dangerous.


    Scare tactics don’t seem to keep teens from drinking, so I’m not sure how we are to translate this information into action.  Certainly this is one more piece of information that heath educators can use as they work with students to understand the reasons why they need to delay using alcohol or skip it entirely.


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    Cancer isn’t on the minds of most young people.  However, almost every week we get a letter from a teen here at HealthCentral who is worried about having breast cancer.  We always reassure her that the chances that she has breast cancer as a teen are incredibly small.  From now on, I’ll be adding a sentence telling her that the best action she can take to prevent breast cancer is to wait to take that first drink.


    Rathner, Z.  Consuming alcohol before first pregnancy linked with increased risk of BBD and breast cancer.  28 Aug. 2013.  Accessed 17 Sept. 2013.


    Whiteman, H. School age drinking ‘may increase breast cancer risk.’  30 Aug. 2013.  Accessed 17 Sept. 2013. 


    Ying Liu, Graham A. Colditz, Bernard Rosner, et al.  Alcohol Intake Between Menarche and First Pregnancy: A Prospective Study of Breast Cancer Risk.  JNCI J Natl Cancer Inst. 28 Aug. 2013. doi:10.1093/jnci/djt213.  Accessed 17 Sept. 2013.

Published On: September 17, 2013