Red Wine for Women: Heart Health Protection or Breast Cancer Risk?
Q. There's no breast cancer in my family but I'm petrified of getting it, and in the last year two friends my age (56) have been diagnosed with it. I'm not a big drinker but I enjoy a glass of red wine with dinner 3 or 4 times week. Does that make me more likely to get breast cancer?
-- Allison, Sanibel, FL
A. Asking us how to solve the European debt crisis might be a simpler question! Here's our latest, best advice. It applies not only to wine for women specifically, but to women and alcohol in general.
For women, the question is increasingly: To drink or not to drink? The answer depends on whether you have any family history of breast cancer, heart disease, or stroke. You see, alcohol protects both heart health and your entire vascular system (think heart attacks and strokes), but it also inhibits your immune system (think cancer and infections). (Here's more help in weighing your personal risks and benefits.)
You don't mention heart disease or stroke, but if there's any history of either in your family, we YOU Docs would tilt toward continuing to enjoy your glass of red wine. There's clear evidence that for women (men, too), having no more than a drink a day (no more than two for men) is heart and brain protective. Since there's no breast cancer in your family, those heart health benefits outweigh any breast cancer risks related to drinking. That's because cardiovascular disease is the #1 killer of women.
But if there aren't any heart attacks or strokes in your family history, things shift. Some impressive new research has just linked even light drinking like yours -- 3 to 6 drinks a week -- to a modest increase in breast cancer risk, compared to women who don't drink at all. (Heavier drinking -- 2 drinks a day -- sharply increases the risk.) Assuming there's no vascular disease in your family and weighing the "peace of mind" factor, we'd suggest half a glass of wine on most nights. That takes you out of the modest risk group, gives you heart and stroke protection, and lets you enjoy some vino. If that's not enough peace of mind for you, consider this healthy substitute for red wine.
One note: Next time you pour a glass of wine, get out your kitchen measuring cup. A "glass" equals 5 ounces. You may be surprised by what that looks like! (You may also be surprised by this quick summary of what it does to and for you.)