A new study is taking a closer look at alcohol consumption in adolescent girls and its links to breast disease.

Adding to research linking alcohol with breast cancer risk, a study finds adolescent girls with a family history of breast disease – either cancer or benign lesions that can become cancer - have a higher risk of developing benign breast disease as young women if alcohol consumption is elevated.

"The most common question we hear from women with a family history of breast disease is how can we prevent breast cancer in our daughters," says epidemiologist Graham A. Colditz, MD, PhD, the Niess-Gain Professor of Surgery and senior author on the study published in the journal Cancer.

"This points to a strategy to lower risk — or avoid increasing risk — by limiting alcohol intake."

Regardless of family history a previous study that Colditz co-authored, had found that there was a moderate increase in breast cancer risk in women who had as few as three to six drinks per week.

While most studies linking alcohol to the risk of breast cancer focus primarily on invasive breast cancer and women in their 40s, 50s, and 60s, this new study from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, focuses on alcohol consumption in relation to adolescents and the risk of early benign breast disease that may lead to invasive breast cancer.

"In the current study, we have tried to disentangle the effects of alcohol in women with a family history that includes both breast cancer and benign breast disease, compared to women with no family history," Colditz says.

"And we're seeing the strongest effect of alcohol in women with breast disease in the family."

The study including 9,000 adolescent girls from all 50 states who are daughters of participants in the Nurses’ Health Study II, began in 1996, at that time the girls were ages 9 to 15 when they completed baseline questionnaires.

Researchers followed up on the subjects as they tracked family history, alcoholic beverage intake, height, weight, waist circumference and age of first menstrual period, among other factors that influence breast cancer risk.

The surveys in 2005 and 2007, when participants were ages 18 to 27, showed that 67 of the young women reported a diagnosis of benign breast disease that was confirmed by biopsy, and 6,741 reported no such diagnosis of benign breast disease. The benign condition is a large class of conditions that can cause breast lumps or pain and are a known risk factor for breast cancer, researchers said.

The study also found that when a young woman’s mother or aunt had breast cancer, she was more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with benign breast disease, than a young woman with no family history.

The study also found that daughters of mothers with benign breast disease were almost twice as likely to develop benign breast disease themselves.

The risks of girls whose mothers, aunts or grandmothers had breast cancer or benign breast disease were heightened by alcohol consumption and the risk increased with the amount of alcohol consumption.

Although previous research has linked alcohol to breast cancer risk, the new study found that young women without a family history of breast disease had no elevated risk of benign breast lesions with alcohol consumption.

Their risk instead, appeared to be related to increased body mass index in childhood, waist circumference in adolescence and height in adulthood, explained the authors.

"Increasing height is related to breast cancer risk," Colditz says.

"And some data point to faster growth spurts leading to a higher risk of subsequent cancer. Obviously, that's not something we can control. But if we can understand what is going on in terms of hormones and processes in the body and the role of physical activity and diet, we may be able to modify some of that accumulation of breast cancer risk through the early years."