Your Health

Study Suggests Boozing Makes Cells Grow Older, Sicker Quicker

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Cutting back on shots (alcohol, not this blog) may prevent your cells from aging before their time. hide caption

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Cutting back on shots (alcohol, not this blog) may prevent your cells from aging before their time.

You may have experienced it before: after having a drink too many you wake up feeling sick and, well, old. But a small new study suggests that alcohol may actually have longer-term effects on aging and associated diseases, like cancer.

"It is commonly thought heavy drinking leads to premature aging and earlier onset of diseases of aging," Dr. Andrea Baccarelli, a lead researcher of the study, which was presented at the American Association of Cancer Research 2010 conference this week, said in a statement. Now there's some new evidence.

Baccarelli and his team found that alcohol causes damage to small bits at the ends of our DNA called telomeres, whose job it is to protect our real DNA — think of them as the plastic tips on shoelaces. As cells divide, pieces of our telomeres get cut off, so with each division they get shorter, until there's no more and the cell can no longer divide and dies.

It may come as no surprise then that older people generally have shorter telomeres, and that these little end-caps to our DNA are associated with aging.

All participants had similar diets, levels of exercise, work-related stress, and environmental exposures, so the levels of drinking were considered the variable in the study.

The University of Milan-run study, which looked at roughly 250 men from Northeast Italy, found that heavy drinkers had much shorter telomeres than their more moderate counterparts — the heavy drinkers' (self-identified in a questionnaire) telomeres were only about half the size of their more moderate counterparts.

And there are other concerns over accelerated telomere shortening, too. "If too much telomere DNA is lost — for instance, due to excessive cell division — the chromosomes can become unstable, which can increase the risk of cancer," Dr. Alan Meeker, a Johns Hopkins researcher who studies telomere shortening in cancer told Shots. "Where we have been able to look... telomere shortening appears to be a very early and common event in the development of cancer," Meeker said.

Oddly enough, telomere shortening can also work to suppress tumors — suffice it to say, it's a complicated process (you can learn more about it here). But many studies have found links between shortened telomeres and increased risk of cancer, including prostate, breast, ovarian and lung.

So, while a glass-of-wine-a-day habit may protect you against health woes, just make sure it doesn't turn into one-too-many glasses a day. Your telomeres might thank you later.



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