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How Binge Drinking Increases Breast Cancer Risk for Young Women

How Binge Drinking Increases Breast Cancer Risk for Young Women

It’s fall, and it’s back to college for many young woman. Back to catching up with friends, sports practice, studying and -- for even more young women than men -- binge drinking. Two big studies out in the past few months -- one from Harvard Medical School -- noted that college-age women binge drink more than men their age.

The second study, cited in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, quantified what that means for their health. It found that alcohol during this time increased a woman’s risk of breast cancer significantly. Previous studies have tied alcohol intake to breast cancer -- one study of 100,000 women showed that for every 10g of alcohol per day (about 70% of a standard drink), the risk of breast cancer increases by 10%.

What causes binge drinking?

However, this study was the first to tie TIMING of consumption to breast cancer risk, and found that alcohol consumption in the time from a female’s first period to her first pregnancy is even MORE dangerous -- with one drink per day increasing the risk of breast cancer by 13%, and the risk of benign breast disease by 15% (which further ups your risk for breast cancer). Three drinks per day? The risk increases by 20%.

Why the Connection?
Scientists aren’t sure exactly why alcohol plays such a role, but it’s felt that it affects estrogen levels, which could explain why it seems to increase the risk of estrogen-receptive cancers the most. During the time between menstruation and child-bearing, the body is in its rapid development stage, meaning cells are proliferating and changing and are even more susceptible to any environmental exposure. So a known toxin like alcohol at this vulnerable time causes greater risk.

So, how much is safe?
It’s hard to say how much a young woman could drink without compromising her future health. Some studies have shown an association with cancer with even three to six drinks per week. So we can’t necessarily say that there’s a “safe” amount, and everyone has to make their own decisions. That said, we do know that certain amounts raise your risk, especially:

  • Drinking three drinks or more per day
  • Drinking even one drink per day regularly, especially in one’s teens and early twenties
  • Regular binge drinking (for women, binge drinking is defined as consuming four or more drinks in about two hours)

If you’re a female in this age bracket, or you have a loved one that is, please share this information with her. The college years are a time of study -- but there are plenty of healthy ways to kick back and enjoy life without increasing the risk of breast cancer along the way!

Medically reviewed in November 2019.

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