Alcohol and cancer
Drinking alcohol increases the risk of at least seven types of cancer [i] - of the bowel and breast, mouth and throat, voice box, oesophagus and liver.
The UK Chief Medical Officer’s Low Risk Alcohol Guidelines[ii] state that the risk of cancer starts from any level of regular drinking and rises with the amount of alcohol being drunk.
1 in 25 newly diagnosed cancer cases in the last year may be associated with drinking alcohol, according to a global study published in The Lancet Oncology.
Alcohol consumption has been shown to cause damage to DNA by increasing the production of harmful chemicals in the body. It can also affect hormone production, which can contribute to cancer development and worsen the cancer-causing effects of other substances, such as tobacco[iii].
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK and drinking alcohol is one of the biggest risk factors for breast cancer. Around 4,400 breast cancer cases each year are caused by drinking alcohol. The risk increases even at low levels of drinking.[iv]
Drinking alcohol is worse for you if you smoke. This is because tobacco and alcohol work together to cause much more damage to cells. This increases the risk of cancer.[v]
- Alcohol is now the leading risk factor for ill-health, early mortality and disability among people aged 15 to 49 in England and the fifth leading risk factor for ill health across all age groups[vi].
- Liver disease: Liver disease is on the rise. Since 1970, deaths due to liver disease have increased by 400%[vii].
- High blood pressure and stroke: Alcohol can increase your risk of high blood pressure and stroke, even if you don’t drink very large amounts. And if you’ve had a stroke, alcohol could increase your risk of another stroke.
- Immune system: The World Health Organisation has warned that alcohol use, especially heavy use, can weaken the immune system and leave us more vulnerable to infectious diseases like Covid [viii].
- Mental health: According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, regularly drinking alcohol affects the chemistry of the brain and can increase the risk of depression, low mood and anxiety. Drinking can make you feel more tired and lower in mood.
- Brain: Alcohol can cause damage to the brain. According to the Alzheimer’s Society, those with Alcohol Related Brain Damage (ARBD) suffer from problems such as memory loss and difficulty concentrating, similar to Alzheimer’s disease.
- Weight: Many people aren’t sure about the number of calories in their drinks and these can easily stack up. Reducing how much alcohol we drink is a good way to keep our weight in check.
To make things worse, alcohol use has soared in the last 18 months, especially among people who are already drinking heavily:
- Alcohol related deaths in England hit a record high during 2020 amid the pandemic, with the worst rates in the country in the North East[ix].
- There were over three quarters of a million alcohol-related hospital admissions nationally between April and December 2020, with three-quarters involving patients over the age of 50[x].
- A major survey by Balance across the North East – thought to be the largest in-depth study of alcohol use in any English region during the pandemic – found:
- 4/10 adults, or an estimated 855,000 people in the region, were drinking above Chief Medical Officers’ low-risk guidelines.
- Heavier drinkers were more likely to have increased how often they drank during the pandemic[xi].
- Heavier drinking is highest amongst 45 to 54 year olds; almost one in two people in this age group are drinking at levels which increase their health risks.
- Even in retirement (65 plus), one in three adults are consuming above the low risk drinking guidelines.
National data also highlights the role alcohol plays in exacerbating health inequalities:
- People living in deprived areas are more likely to experience an alcohol-related hospital admission or die of an alcohol-related cause[xii].
- The rise in drinking has been greater among people from less affluent backgrounds (64%).
Despite this, awareness about the health risks associated with alcohol is low. In 2020, only 1 in 3 (33%) North East adults were aware that alcohol can cause cancer, down from 4 in 10 in 2019. The public has a “right to know” that alcohol is harmful and mass media campaigns, such as Alcohol Can Cause Cancer, raise awareness of this crucial information.
If you drink alcohol, how do your drinks add up? And are they putting your health at risk?
Most of us know that smoking causes cancer. But a worrying new survey shows only 1 in 3 people in the North East know that alcohol also causes cancer such as bowel, breast, mouth and throat cancer.
It is estimated that 4 in10 adults in the North East, or 855,000 people, are drinking above Chief Medical Officers’ low-risk guidelines of no more than 14 units per week, raising their risk.
It’s not just heavy drinkers who are affected. Even small amounts of alcohol, drunk regularly, can increase the risk of cancer. And any type of alcohol can cause cancer... whether it is wine, beer or spirits.
Drinking regularly can also damage the liver and raise our risk of heart disease, high blood pressure (hypertension) and stroke. It can lead to us gaining weight and increase the risk of anxiety and depression.
The best way to reduce your risk is to cut down. VisitReducemyRisk.tv, try the alcohol units quiz, and download the free Try Dry app to track your units, calories and money saved when you cut down or cut out alcohol.
“Too often we don’t think about alcohol when it comes to protecting our health. We are encouraging people in Hartlepool to rethink their attitude towards alcohol and to consider ways to cut down.
“It is worrying that 2020 saw more people drinking at risky levels which over time will increase people’s risk of developing cancers such as breast and bowel cancer, heart disease and stroke, as well as potentially adding to anxiety and depression.
“Cutting down on alcohol consumption and taking a few days off a week from alcohol can be a really good way to reduce your risk.”
What is the guidance?
- The Chief Medical Officer’s guidance is that men and women are safest not to drink more than 14 units per week.
- The guidance states that a good way to cut down on alcohol consumption is to have several drink-free days each week.
- 14 units of alcohol is equivalent to six pints of average-strength beer or six medium glasses of wine. However - just one pint of strong lager or a large glass of wine can contain more than three units of alcohol.