We investigated the relation of alcohol consumption to risk of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (NHL) in a cohort of 35 156 Iowa women aged 55-69 years who participated in the Iowa Women's Health Study in 1986. Alcohol consumption at baseline was obtained using a mailed questionnaire. During the 9-year follow-up period, 143 incident cases of NHL were identified. Higher alcohol consumption was significantly associated with a decreased risk of NHL (P-trend = 0.03). Compared to non-drinkers, multivariate-adjusted relative risks (RRs) were decreased for women with intake of < or = 3.4 g day(-1) (RR = 0.78; 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.51-1.21) and > 3.4 g day(-1) (RR = 0.59; 0.36-0.97). The inverse association could not be attributed to one particular type of alcoholic beverage, although red wine (RR = 0.21 for > 2 glasses per month vs non-drinker; 0.05-0.86; P-trend = 0.02) has the most distinct effect. The apparent protective effect was universal regardless of specific NHL grade or Working Formulation subtype, but was most pronounced for nodal NHL (RR = 0.48; 0.26-0.90; P-trend = 0.01) and low-grade NHL (RR = 0.52; 0.21-1.26; P-trend = 0.05). These data suggest that moderate alcohol consumption is inversely associated with the risk of NHL in older women and the amount of alcohol consumed, rather than the type of alcoholic beverages, appears to be the main effect determinant.