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Coffee May Protect Against Head, Neck Cancers

June 23, 2010

Data on the effects of coffee on cancer risk have been mixed. However, results of a recent study add to the brewing evidence that drinking coffee protects against cancer, this time against head and neck cancer.

Full study results are published online first in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, a journal of the American Association for Cancer Research.

Using information from a pooled-analysis of nine studies collected by the International Head and Neck Cancer Epidemiology (INHANCE) consortium, participants who were regular coffee drinkers, that is, those who drank an estimated four or more cups a day, compared with those who were non-drinkers, had a 39 percent decreased risk of oral cavity and pharynx cancers combined.

Data on decaffeinated coffee was too sparse for detailed analysis, but indicated no increased risk. Tea intake was not associated with head and neck cancer risk.

The association is more reliable among those who are frequent, regular coffee drinkers, consuming more than four cups of coffee a day.

“Since coffee is so widely used and there is a relatively high incidence and low survival rate of these forms of cancers, our results have important public health implications that need to be further addressed,” said lead researcher Mia Hashibe, Ph.D., assistant professor in the department of family and preventive medicine at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, and a Huntsman Cancer Institute investigator.

“What makes our results so unique is that we had a very large sample size, and since we combined data across many studies, we had more statistical power to detect associations between cancer and coffee,” she said.

At the AACR Frontiers in Cancer Prevention Research Conference last December, researchers from Harvard presented data that showed a strong inverse association between coffee consumption and the risk of lethal and advanced prostate cancers “” men who drank the most coffee had a 60 percent lower risk of aggressive prostate cancer than men who did not drink any coffee.

More recently, results of another study published in the January issue of Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention showed a decreased risk of gliomas, or brain tumors, associated with coffee. This association was found among those who drank five or more cups of coffee or tea a day, according the researchers from the Imperial College, London.

Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention editorial board member Johanna W. Lampe, Ph.D., R.D., believes this current analysis by Hashibe and colleagues provides strong, additional evidence for an association between caffeinated coffee drinking and cancer risk.

“The fact that this was seen for oral and pharyngeal cancers, but not laryngeal cancers, provides some evidence as to a possible specificity of effect,” said Lampe, who is a full member and associate division director in the division of public health sciences at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle., Wash.

“These findings provide further impetus to pursue research to understand the role of coffee in head and neck cancer prevention,” she added. Lampe is not associated with this study.

Additional research is warranted to characterize the importance of timing and duration of exposure and possible mechanisms of action, according to Hashibe.

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