An analysis of nine studies involving 15,000 people from the United States, Britain, Sweden and Italy showed that people who drank alcohol had about a 27 percent lower chance of developing non-Hodgkin lymphoma than non-drinkers.
“Our pooled analysis of alcohol consumption and non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) risk suggests that people who drink alcoholic beverages have a lower risk of NHL than those who do not,” said Dr Lindsay Morton of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the United States.
Drinking alcohol raises the odds of several cancers, but drinkers had a lower risk of NHL regardless of the type of alcohol, the amount they consumed or how long they had been drinking.
“We think this is a new kind of clue that might give us a handle on the biology of the illness,” Patricia Hartage, of the NIH and a co-author of the study, said in an interview. “For us this is a real window on what might influence non-Hodgkin lymphoma.”
NHL includes cancer of the lymph nodes, spleen and other organs of the lymphatic system. There are 20 different types of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. They usually affect people older than 50, and organ transplant patients and people with a suppressed immune system have a higher risk of developing the illness.
Cases of NHL have risen worldwide in the past few decades. The researchers studied 6,500 patients with NHL and 8,600 healthy people. They found that a family history of NHL, age, sex, and a history of smoking did not change the effect of alcohol on the illness.
“We don’t know whether other lifestyle factors or ... true effects of alcohol on the immune system explain the association,” said Morton.
Alcohol had the biggest impact on Burkitt’s lymphoma, according to the analysis, published in The Lancet Oncology, with drinkers’ risk of developing the cancer about half that of non-drinkers.
Studies have suggested that antioxidants in the skin of grapes reduce the risk of NHL particularly in red wine drinkers. But the researchers said their findings did not show any difference between drinkers of white and red wine and other beverages.
The reason why drinking might lower the risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma remains unclear, but there may be a biological basis for the finding. “There is some biologic data on the effect of alcohol on the immune system,” said Patricia Hartge, deputy director of the Epidemiology and Biostatistics Program at the National Cancer Institute. “It is imaginable that there is a real biologic influence of current alcohol consumption and lymphoma risk.”
Since the mechanism behind alcohol’s effect on lymphoma risk is unclear, Morton stressed that their study is not definitive. “The finding should not be seen as a recommendation to start drinking or to drink more,” she added. added.
Source: Lindsay M. Morton, Ph.D.; Patricia Hartge, D.Sc.; David L. Katz, M.D., M.P.H.; Len Lichtenfeld, M.D.; June 7, 2005, The Lancet Oncology online