Drinking Sensibly; a medical viewpoint from a local resident
The medical advice about drinking alcohol and health is at best confusing and at worst contradictory. There are a number of problems with interpreting the data about any health related activity, both for professionals and for the public. For the professionals there are always some confounding, alternative explanations as
to what might and might not cause disease. This makes it hard to say that alcohol consumption causes an individual cancer; what it assuredly does is to increase the probability of certain cancers in some individuals.
Certainly the data from the largest ever cohort study (one of the highest forms of medical-evidence-gathering-designs), the Nurse’s Health Study in the USA, has collected lifestyle and disease data from over 120,000 nurses since 1976. It suggests that there are associations between alcohol consumption and breast cancer and colon cancer, and some protection afforded in terms of coronary heart disease and cognitive functioning. This perhaps underpins the decision-making behind the latest advice regarding alcohol consumption and limiting it to 14 units a week released by England’s Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies.
The other issue with understanding medical releases is understanding what the numbers actually mean. So the reported 12% increased risk for breast cancer in women who drink moderate amounts each day does not mean that 12% of moderate drinking women will get breast cancer, it means the life time risk of developing breast cancer is increased from about 12%, by a further 12% of that 12% to 13.5%.
In brief, as adults we need to make informed choices about how much we drink and consider what this means for us in terms of things like our family history of disease and our own attitude to risk taking.
Peter Ellis has a Masters in Medical Epidemiology and is Nursing Director at the Hospice in the Weald