Alcohol and Health: Three New Studies and What They Mean for Youth and Young Adults

Photo: Flickr/Tim RT

It’s been a big week in the news for alcohol and health. Three separate studies were released that helped shed light on a key issue we often discuss here at Cancer News in Context: the important impact that drinking has on cancer risk – particularly when started early in life.

The first report, which appeared in the online journal Preventing Chronic Disease, details the impact that drinking has on both disease risk and lifespan.  In the overall population, excessive drinking was found to cause over 87,000 deaths each year, resulting in 2.5 million years of life lost.  Acute causes – like car crashes, suicide/homicide, and falls – accounted for a little over half of these deaths, while chronic diseases – like stroke, cancer, and liver diseases – accounted for the rest.  Among working age adults (20 – 64 years), 10 percent of all deaths each year could be attributed to alcohol.

In those under age 21, alcohol accounted for about 4,300 deaths each year and a total of 249,727 years of life lost.  Not surprisingly, the most important contributors to these deaths were more immediate causes – car crashes and suicides/homicides –  rather than chronic diseases.  

Yet, just because the full chronic disease effect of excessive drinking doesn’t show itself until later in life, this doesn’t mean that drinking in youth doesn’t have an important impact on later risk.  This seems especially so for breast cancer, where there is now good evidence that drinking in youth and young adulthood has a pronounced influence on later-life breast cancer risk.  Unlike most other organs in the body, the breasts continue to develop until a woman has her first child, and up until then, breast tissue appears more susceptible to harmful risk factors, like alcohol.  
This makes the results of another study released this week particularly concerning.  This study, released in the Journal of the American Medical Association – Psychiatry, found that younger generations of Australian women now drink much more excessively than did their mothers when they were the same age.  One primary reason for this is, simply, that women today are more likely to delay childbirth, deciding to have children later in life than their mothers did.  Without obligations of children and family there is greater opportunity for, and fewer drawbacks to, drinking.  
This new pattern  – which is likely mimicked across multiple nations – can have important implications for breast cancer for the reasons discussed above related to breast development.  Not only are women drinking more, they’re doing so during the key period in breast development between first having a period and having a first child.   
Finding effective ways to help adolescents and college-aged women understand these risks and avoid alcohol – or at a minimum avoid excessive amounts of alcohol – will be a challenge for health professionals moving forward.  
Another paper released in the journal Nature this week could eventually help with this (related NPR story).  Researchers looked at various characteristics of 700 European 14 year olds – from family history, to personality traits, to brain anatomy – to see if any patterns emerged that predicted drinking at age 16.  They found that life experiences, personality, and certain aspects of brain anatomy could predict with decent accuracy who would go on to become problem drinkers.  While using such an algorithm is a long way off from practical application, it does show that it may be possible in the future to identify in the health care setting which youth may be more likely to put their health at risk with early life drinking.  Interventions could then be better targeted and would hopefully be more effective at curbing youth drinking.
Despite the depictions in magazine, TV, and website ads, drinking is a major minefield for adolescents and young adults.  There’s the very immediate dangers of car crashes, injuries, and unsafe sex, and the longer-term dangers of alcoholism, cancer, and other chronic diseases.  Forming effective channels to reach out to youth with such messages needs to be a continued priority for public health.

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