Alcohol, Aging and Cancer

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010 by American Senior Fitness Association   View This Issue of Experience!

Senior health-fitness professionals should have a basic understanding of the role telomeres play in the aging process. Telomeres are repeated sequences of DNA that are present at the ends of chromosomes and serve to protect them from damage. With aging, telomeres shorten, rendering them more vulnerable to injury and death. Therefore, telomere length can be viewed as one marker of the rate of biological aging. Telomeres are involved in the maintenance of cells in the immune system. Thus, the shortening of telomeres may indicate an increased risk for disease.

SFA has reported on the topic of telomeres in previous Experience! articles. For important background information, click on Work Out to Stay Biologically Younger: The Science of Telomeres and Lifestyle Factors and Telomerase: Enzyme Study.

Now comes new research, recently presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), suggesting that excessive alcohol consumption may increase the risk for cancer in older adults due to telomere shortening. Scientists at the University of Milan analyzed the DNA of 59 individuals who abused alcohol (with 22 percent drinking four or more alcoholic beverages a day) and 197 people with variable alcohol consumption habits. The researchers wanted to learn whether or not heavy drinking shortens telomeres. The two groups were similar regarding other variables that might affect telomere length, for example:

  • Age,
  • Diet,
  • Physical exercise levels,
  • Job-related stress, and
  • Environmental exposures.
  • The results showed that telomere length was dramatically shortened in persons who used heavy amounts of alcohol. Indeed, their telomere length was almost half that of non-abusers.

    Lead researcher Andrea Baccarelli, MD, PhD, said, "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."

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

    To see the AACR news release on this study, click here.

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