Women who drink wine in light to moderate amounts may have a lower risk of developing ovarian cancer than nondrinkers do, according to research conducted at the Queensland Institute of Medical Research in Australia. Women who drink beer and spirits may not get the same benefits, and their risk for the disease does not appear to differ significantly from nondrinkers.
The study found that even low levels of wine consumption, such as less than one glass a week, were associated with a 20 percent lower risk of ovarian cancer. Women who averaged a glass or two of wine per day had about half the chance of developing the cancer as nondrinkers did, the researchers reported. Their results were published in the April issue of Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention.
"Our finding was slightly surprising, given that it is now generally accepted that drinking alcohol increases a woman's chance of developing breast cancer," said lead author Penny Webb, a senior researcher at the institute. The breast cancer link may be related to alcohol's effect on sex hormones, she added, so her team wanted to look at whether drinking had an effect on other gender-based cancers, such as ovarian cancer.
The researchers noted that only a few other studies have been done on alcohol's relationship to ovarian cancer, which is the sixth most common cancer in Australian women, with 1,200 new cases reported in the country each year.
Webb and her team analyzed data from a five-year study on ovarian cancer and compared the drinking habits of 696 women with cancer and 786 women without. The women, who ranged in age from 18 to 79, were recruited from three medical centers across Australia between 1990 and 1993.
Ovarian tissue from each woman was examined by a cancer pathologist, and interviews were conducted to determine drinking patterns. Women were grouped by their consumption: nondrinkers, less than one drink per week, one to six drinks per week, one to less than two drinks per day, and two or more drinks per day.
The women were asked what type of alcohol beverage -- wine, beer or spirits -- they preferred to drink. One drink was defined as 1.8 grams of alcohol, the equivalent of a 4- to 5-ounce glass of wine, an 8- to 12-ounce beer or a 1.5-ounce shot of liquor.
Other factors -- such as whether the women drank coffee, their education level and income, their smoking habits and family history of cancer -- were also examined.
In the initial analysis, alcohol consumption showed little or no significant link to a woman's chance of developing ovarian cancer. However, when the beverage types were examined separately, the results changed.
Among women without ovarian cancer, those who preferred beer or spirits had a risk level similar to that of nondrinkers. However, the cancer-free women who preferred to drink wine showed a lower risk of developing ovarian cancer. Among those who consumed between less than one glass a week and up to six glasses per week, the risk was around 20 percent lower than nondrinkers. Cancer-free women who drank one or two glasses of wine per day were about 50 percent less likely to develop ovarian cancer than nondrinkers.
"The apparent reduction in risk associated only with wine intake and not other types of alcohol suggests that the protective effect may be due to something other than the alcohol in the wine," Webb said. "It is possible that the high levels of antioxidants and phytoestrogens found in wine, from the grapes and grape skins, could reduce the risk of ovarian cancer."
Women with ovarian cancer, however, showed no change in their condition based on their drinking habits. In other words, wine may not aid the recovery process for ovarian cancer patients, the study said.
The exact association between alcohol and cancer pathology is still unclear, Webb said. For example, wine-drinking women tended to be younger and have healthier habits, lending weight to the idea that one's overall lifestyle may affect cancer risk levels more than alcohol consumption does, she said.
For a comprehensive look at the potential health benefits of drinking wine, check out senior editor Per-Henrik Mansson's feature Eat Well, Drink Wisely, Live Longer: The Science Behind A Healthy Life With Wine
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Here's to Your Health: Is it now "medically correct" for a physician to prescribe a little wine to lower the risk of heart disease?