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Monday, April 11, 2011

Beer drinking Increases Stomach Cancer (Probably)

Okay, this is bad:
For individuals who consume two to three beers (or more) daily over the course of many years, a new study suggests that they may have a 75 percent increased risk of gastric (stomach) cancer. And for those who also have a certain gene called rs1230025, which is found in about 20 percent of the general population, the chance of getting gastric cancer goes up seven-fold. If you have this gene but aren’t a heavy drinker, your risk of developing gastric cancer is still 30 percent higher than people who drink less than one beer per day.
If your mind is like mine, it immediately went to this place: "must be the alcohol." Depressingly, no:
Interestingly, the link to gastric cancer only held true for beer drinkers, while wine or liquor consumption was not associated with an increased risk.

“We’ve always assumed that any risk associated with alcoholic beverages is due to the ethanol content and not whether it’s beer, wine or liquor, meaning all spirits consumed in excess pose the same risk. But this new study shows us that beer in particular seems to pose a greater danger to health, at least for stomach cancer,” notes ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan.
For those of you looking for thin reeds upon which to hang hopes, the study didn't look into beer-drinking specifically. Researchers found correlations in an older study ('92-'98) on cancer and nutrition. Your reed is this: correlation isn't causation, and there could be other factors at play. Still, not cool.


  1. This reminds me of a recent XKCD comic.

  2. That MSNBC article is a perfect example of what's wrong with science journalism. It tells you that the risk increases by 75%, but it doesn't tell you what the base risk is. A 75% increase of a tiny risk is still a tiny risk. So what is the risk that a non-beer drinking adult will develop stomach cancer? Without that info, you know virtually nothing about the costs and benefits of drinking or abstaining from beer.

  3. Jacob, before I saw your comment I thought the exact same thing so I did some research. So according to the Seer study ( stomach cancer appears to be pretty rare with a rate of 10.9 per 100,000 so I 75% increase if all 100,000 men drank the beer in amounts suggested would mean about another 8 men out of 100,000. The mortality rate is about half that. Also the median age of diagnosis is 70, so it occurs pretty late in life. Even if the beer is actually causing increased incidence of stomach cancer the risk is still extremely small.

  4. They do actually say in the article that there is a 1 in 114 chance that an individual will develop this cancer in their lives (though this is overall and not a conditional nor a hazard rate).

    What I wonder is how well they were able to isolate the true causality as heavy beer consumption could correlate to many other activities that are not good for you as well as things like obesity.

    That said, I am switching to wine! Look out for Wineonomics - coming soon. Or maybe Whine-o- nomics...

  5. I actually meant to include the qualification you (Jacob and Kaplan) mention with respect to 75% of what. In brewery terms, it's always useful to ask that question when you hear a brewery boast massive growth by percentage.

    On the other hand, I would guess that nearly doubling the incidence of stomach cancer, if it proves to be true, is a serious finding. You can still take your chances without getting too panicked, but it is significant nonetheless.

  6. Thanks for pointing that out, Patrick. I misread that sentence the first time.

  7. As a scientist, I'd like to point out a couple of things if I may. First of all, this is not data from a peer reviewed, published research journal article. Instead, it's from a conference presentation. Usually, this is where we vet recently completed research prior to publication. It is not uncommon for peer review to require additional studies that might end up tempering the interpretation of the original data significantly before it goes to press. One might argue that the people would be better served if the press waited for the peer review, but things don't work that way any longer. That being said, the data is culled from a pretty impressive cohort of over 500,000 people from over 10 countries with retrospective data on diet and alcohol consumption.

    Second, rs1230025 is a single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP)--not a gene as stated here. All of us (or rather nearly all of us; complete gene deletions are exceedingly rare) have the same set of genes. In this particular case (, the polymorphism is in a noncoding region located between two genes that encode for alcohol dehydrogenase enzymes, with some people having A's at both alleles, some people having T's at both alleles, and some people having 1 A and 1 T. The T appears to be the ancestral nucleotide. It's a bit interesting that this particular SNP has already been associated with breath alcohol concentration, and, of course, it is located between two enzymes known to metabolize alcohols. One thing that does bother me, however, is it looks like the researchers specifically looked at SNPs around the ADH loci, rather than doing GWAS or looking globally/blindly across many SNPs.

    Finally, the NCBI page I linked above demonstrates that the penetrance of the SNP looks to be significantly higher than 20% of the population. Although, the n's are too small to make a definitive conclusion, it's also interesting that the degree of penetrance is different between the races (i.e. penetrance of the SNP is much higher in the Asian and African-American Celera samples). I wonder if race/ethnicity was controlled for in the study.

    Also, I think some of your readers might be confused. Having two copies of the variant and consuming more than 60 g/day EtOH and that EtOH came specifically from beer was associated with a 872% increase in gastic cancer risk over baseline. Just drinking 30 g/day EtOH and the EtOH came from beer without having the variant is associated with only a 75% increase in gastric cancer.

  8. I love pop-science. Its like eggs. First eggs were good for you, then bad. Then just the whites were ok and something else reared its head. BAH! Everyone simply trying to make a name for their study (and themselves) by posting "bold new discoveries" and preying on the fears of the health conscious (or paranoid).

    If drinking beer means getting stomach cancer, then I'll see you in chemo. Stop drinking beer for the next 50 years of my life so that I can live 5 more years? Hogwash. Like they say gentlemen, it's not the years of your life. It's the life in your years.

    P.S. I do appreciate the investigation of this article by other readers and not just swallowing it whole.

  9. An anonymous commenter left a remarkable post about the science of the particular "single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP)" in question--not, according to the commenter, a gene. S/he must have deleted the comment, which is too bad--it was remarkable.

    (The commenter took issue with the finding.)

  10. A lot of doctors say that beer is very good for health, now i am confused, i don`t know what to think.

  11. Is it just me, or isn't that a lot of beer to be drinking? 3 beers every day!