Healthy living

Alcohol linked to early ageing and cancer

Zone default image Speeds up cell ageing

Drinking too much alcohol speeds up cellular ageing and increases the risk of cancer, new research suggests.

US scientists have found that excessive alcohol consumption can shorten the length of telomeres in cells. Telomeres are the bits of DNA found at the end of chromosomes, which naturally shorten as we age.

Cellular stress and inflammation are associated with heavy drinking, and both are known to speed up telomere shortening. So scientists at the University of Milan decided to investigate whether people with shorter telomeres due to heavy drinking, would have an increased risk of cancer.

"Heavy alcohol users tend to look haggard, and it is commonly thought heavy drinking leads to premature aging and earlier onset of diseases of aging.

"In particular, heavy alcohol drinking has been associated with cancer at multiple sites," said Dr Andrea Baccarelli who led the study.

In the study, the researchers analysed the genetic material - DNA - from more than 250 volunteers, who drank varying amounts of alcohol. Twenty two per cent of these drank four or more alcoholic drinks a day.

The two groups were similar in age and other factors that might affect telomere length, such as diet, physical exercise, work-related stress and environmental exposures.

The scientists found that telomere length was "dramatically shortened" in those who consumed heavy amounts of alcohol. In fact, the telomere length was nearly half as long as telomere length in the non-abusers.

"The decrease we found in telomere length is very sharp, and we were surprised to find such a strong effect at the cellular level," Dr Baccarelli said.

The results of the study were presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research in Washington DC.

This article was published on Thu 22 April 2010

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