Alcohol May Cut Lymphoma Risk

But finding should not encourage people to drink, experts say

WEDNESDAY, June 8, 2005 (HealthDayNews) -- Regular drinkers may be at a 27 percent lower risk of developing non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, the sixth most common cancer, researchers report.

But because drinking is linked to an increased risk for other malignancies, experts say the findings are no reason to take up the habit.

Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma is a cancer of lymphoid tissue, part of the body's lymphatic system. Because lymphatic tissue is found throughout the body, lymphomas can start almost anywhere.

"People who drink alcohol may have a lower risk of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma compared with non-drinkers," said lead author Lindsay M. Morton, a research fellow at the National Cancer Institute.

"It appeared that the lowest risk was in current drinkers," Morton said. "There was also a slightly lower risk in people who had stopped drinking recently. The risk for people who stopped drinking longer ago was equivalent to that of people who did not drink regularly or at all."

In their study, Morton and her colleagues collected data on 6,500 people with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and 8,600 healthy people. The data was drawn from nine studies conducted in the United States, the United Kingdom, Sweden and Italy.

The report appears in the June 7 online issue of The Lancet Oncology.

Morton's team found that while the risk of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma was about 27 percent lower among current drinkers, the risk did not change by drinking more. In addition, the risk also didn't change with the age at which people began drinking, the amount of total lifetime drinking, or the type of preferred beverage.

The reason why drinking might lower the risk of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma remains unclear, but there may be a biological basis for the finding. "There is some biologic data on the effect of alcohol on the immune system," said Patricia Hartge, deputy director of the Epidemiology and Biostatistics Program at the National Cancer Institute. "It is imaginable that there is a real biologic influence of current alcohol consumption and lymphoma risk."

Since the mechanism behind alcohol's effect on lymphoma risk is unclear, Morton stressed that their study is not definitive. The finding should certainly not be seen as a recommendation to start drinking or to drink more, she added.

"This research doesn't have any implications," said Morton, who noted that "drinking alcohol increases dangers for alcoholism, strokes and other cancers. So any perceived health benefit really must take into account these other risks."

Another expert agreed. "Alcohol is causally implicated in most cancers of the head and neck, and appears to raise breast cancer risk by 10 percent or more," said Dr. David L. Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine.

Given that drinking may increase the risk of some cancers and lower the risk of others, Katz believes that, for now, the idea that alcohol could be relied on to fight any cancer is premature.

"The pooled analysis relied on retrospective data and could not establish cause-and-effect," he added. "The study failed to show a dose-response -- meaning protection against lymphoma did not vary with alcohol dose. This is often an indicator that study results may be unreliable."

Another expert agreed that these findings have no real immediate health implications. "I would put this article in the category of something that's interesting, but it shouldn't change anything anybody does in regard to their health," said Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer at the American Cancer Society.

In addition, Lichtenfeld doesn't think that the preventive effect of alcohol is very large. "At best, it's modest. It's not very significant," he said. "It's interesting, but not overwhelming."

More information

The American Cancer Society can tell you more about non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

SOURCES: Lindsay M. Morton, Ph.D., research fellow, National Cancer Institute, Bethesda, Md.; Patricia Hartge, D.Sc., deputy director, Epidemiology and Biostatistics Program, National Cancer Institute, Bethesda, Md.; David L. Katz, M.D., M.P.H., director, Prevention Research Center, and associate clinical professor, epidemiology and public health, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, Conn.; Len Lichtenfeld, M.D., deputy chief medical officer, American Cancer Society, Atlanta; June 7, 2005, The Lancet Oncology online
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