Scientists’ understanding of the relationship between prostate cancer and alcohol consumption has fluctuated in recent years. But two new reports suggest that men who drink moderately have a lower risk of the cancer than those who drink either heavily or not at all.
Past studies have found evidence that some compounds in red wines, mainly flavonoids or resveratrol, could slow or fight cancer cells. But a 2007 study found conflicting evidence, suggesting wine was unlikely to either raise or lower the risk.
Now a study looking at 30 years of data on Finnish twins has found new evidence of moderate drinking's benefits. The research was conducted by a team from Harvard and several health institutes in Finland and published online in the medical journal Cancer Causes & Control in June. The team examined data from the larger Older Finnish Twin Cohort Study, which followed 11,372 twins from 1981 to 2012, conducting regular surveys and medical exams. Over that period, 601 of the men developed prostate cancer.
At first glance, the results are unsurprising: The data showed that heavy drinkers (who consumed more than 14 drinks per week) had a higher risk of prostate cancer than light drinkers (who consumed at most three drinks per week). In addition, binge drinkers had a higher risk than non-binge drinkers.
What piqued scientists’ interest was that participants who avoided alcohol altogether ended up showing a higher risk of prostate cancer than light drinkers.
In a followup critique of the work, posted by the International Scientific Forum on Alcohol Research (ISFAR) at Boston University, a team of researchers said the findings are interesting but there are several factors to consider for additional research. The type of beverage was not specified in the questionnaires, nor was the participants’ food intake—and that’s an important health component.
Ramon Estruch, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Barcelona in Spain, wrote, “In our experience [including a pending, unpublished study], the effect of alcohol intake (even moderately) on cancer varies depending on the dietary pattern of the consumers (healthy diets, i.e. Mediterranean diet, vs. unhealthy diets, i.e. Western dietary pattern).”
The critique also suggested that it may be the non-alcoholic polyphenols (plant-based organic chemicals with healthy antioxidant properties) that helped lower risk of prostate cancer, which could help explain why light drinking corresponded with a lower risk than total abstinence. What’s clear is that further research is needed to gain a truer picture of the link.