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Posted Apr 19 2010 12:13pm

An estimated six hundred women die each year in England from breast cancer caused by their excessive alcohol consumption. A new study suggests that drinking heavily from an early age can increase that risk.

The research – carried out in America – analysed the alcohol consumption of 7000 girls, aged between nine & fifteen when the study began, using annual questionnaires from 1996 to 2001, followed by questionnaires in 2003, 2005 & 2007. The study was unique in that it asked the young participants about their alcohol consumption in real time, rather than asking them to recall it many years later. On the 2005 & 2007 surveys, the women – then aged between eighteen & twenty seven – were asked if they had ever been diagnosed with benign breast disease, & whether that had been confirmed by a biopsy.

Benign breast disease includes cysts & lumps that are non-cancerous, as well as skin & nipple problems. About eighty per cent of breast lumps are non-cancerous, but women who have them are more at risk of going on to develop breast cancer. Dr. Graham Colditz, associate director of prevention and control at the Siteman Cancer Center at Washington University School of Medicine and Barnes-Jewish Hospital, & co-author of the study said, “We know from many other studies of adult women that alcohol intake later in life increases breast cancer risk, but many women begin drinking alcohol as adolescents right at the time in which breast tissue is going through stages of rapid proliferation, so we wanted to see if the effect of alcohol on breast cancer risk was operative in this younger group.”

The results of the study showed that the more alcohol the participants consumed, the more chance there was of them developing benign breast disease, a key indicator of breast cancer risk. Girls & young women who drank six or seven times a week were five & a half times more likely to develop benign breast disease. Drinking three to five days a week trebled the risk. Those who were diagnosed with the disease tended to drink more on each occasion & had an average daily consumption twice that of participants who didn’t develop the disease.

The results of the study reinforce the fact that steps can be taken to reduce the risk of breast cancer.

Dr Colditz said: “Our study clearly showed that the risk of benign breast disease increased with the amount of alcohol consumed in this age group. The study is an indication that alcohol should be limited in adolescence and early adult years and further focuses our attention on these years as key to preventing breast cancer later in life.” He said, “There’s growing evidence that physical activity can lower breast cancer risk. We also know that diet and weight are important factors. Now it is clear that drinking habits throughout life affect breast cancer risk as well.”

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