"We looked at the alcohol intake between ages 18 and 22, and we converted it into drinks per day," he said.
Colditz's team found folate intake had no effect on benign breast disease, but alcohol did.
About one-fourth of those surveyed did not drink as teens and young adults. About 11 percent had high intake, drinking the equivalent of 1.5 drinks a day or more. The others had low or moderate drinking patterns.
After an average follow-up of 10 years, the researchers found 659 cases of benign breast disease. The more alcohol a woman consumed, the greater the likelihood she would develop the breast changes, the researchers said.
Experts said the findings are a matter of concern.
"Alcohol consumption even during young adulthood does appear to play an important role in adverse breast health," said Susan Gapstur, vice president of the epidemiology research program for the American Cancer Society.
Not everyone with proliferative benign breast disease gets breast cancer, of course. However, benign breast disease "is an important, consistent risk factor," Gapstur said.
Dr. Jonathan Espenschied, director of graduate medical education and clinical training at the City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Center in Duarte, Calif., said the study clearly suggests that health behaviors during adolescence and young adulthood affect health later.
In his work with young adult and teen patients, Espenschied said he tries to educate them about drinking, instead of telling them not to drink. "I would want them to be aware of alcohol consumption and what it can do, not just in terms of breast cancer," he said. "They are young adults and they are going to make their own decision."
While the study uncovered an association between adolescent alcohol use and benign breast disease, it did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship.
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