The question: Can heavy alcohol consumption accelerate telomere shortening & does telomere shortening cause premature aging and an increased cancer risk?

Many of us like to drink alcoholic beverages. I confess, I too enjoy red wind have been known to enjoy a single malt scotch on occasion. However, we always need to remember that excessive drinking has negative consequences; it can even have cancer consequences!

A paper presented at the American Association for Cancer Research 101st Annual Meeting 2010 (AACR) that I attended presented the results of a cross-sectional study that detected a link between alcohol consumption, cancer and aging that starts at the cellular level with the shortening of telomeres.

Telomeres are found at the tip of DNA sequences at the end of a chromosome. They are important for maintaining the genetic stability of cells. In the normal course of life, as people age, telomere length shortens progressively. Think of telomeres as the plastic end or tip of a shoe lace. As the tip breaks and falls off the shoe lace begins to unravel, the laces becomes unstable. If the telomeres shorten the genetic material similarly unravels.

Lead researcher, Andrea Baccarelli, M.D., Ph.D., found that excessive use of alcohol is linked to oxidative stress and inflammation, two mechanisms that will accelerate telomere shortening. Since telomere shortening is thought to increase cancer risk, the researchers speculated that those with shorter telomeres due to heavy alcohol consumption would have an increased risk of cancer and possibly encourage more aggressive cancer progression.

Baccarelli, who is head of the Center of Molecular and Genetic Epidemiology, Ca’ Granda Hospital Foundation, University of Milan, Italy 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. All the cells in our body have a biological clock in telomeres.”

The researchers, using real-time polymerase chain reaction, measured the serum DNA of 59 participants who abused alcohol (22 percent consumed four or more alcoholic drinks per day) and 197 participants with variable alcohol consumption habits (4 percent consumed four or more alcoholic drinks per day).

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

Their findings showed that telomere length was dramatically shortened in those who consumed heavy amounts of alcohol; telomere length was nearly half as long as telomere length in the non-abusers (0.41 vs. 0.79 relative units).

It was also noted that carriers of the variant genotype ADH1B were more likely to be abusers and had shorter telomere length, according to Baccarelli.

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

Does this mean we should stop drinking? No, but it should serve as a red flag for those of us who might be more than occasional drinkers.

Joel T Nowak, MA, MSW