A new study by researchers at Harvard suggests that drinking caffeinated coffee could lower your risk of developing Basal Cell Carcinoma, which is the most common type of skin cancer. The study also found that drinking caffeinated tea or cola or consuming chocolate also appeared to reduce the risk.
The new study, by researchers at Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health, was published on July 1 in the journal Cancer Research.
Basal Cell Carcinoma is the most common type of cancer in the US. The cancer starts in the outer layer of the skin, the epidermis, and usually results from regular exposure to sunlight or other ultraviolet radiation.
About 8 out of 10 of skin cancers are Basal Cell Carcinoma, according to the American Cancer Society. According to the U.S. National Cancer Institute, about 2 million people a year are treated for basal cell carcinoma, which rarely spreads to other parts of the body.
The Study; Methodology
In the study, Dr. Jiali Han of Harvard Medical School and Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and colleagues, analyzed data from 112,897 people in the Nurses’ Health Study, a long-running, large study that was designed to measure factors that affect women’s health, and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study, a similar study that involved men.
In the Nurses’ Health Study and Health Professionals Follow-up Study, questionnaires measured the participants’ diet and other lifestyle factors and data was collected on their health at intervals over the study. More than 20 years of data were included in the analysis.
Over 20 years of follow up, just over 22,700 of the participants developed Basal Cell Carcinoma. Only 741 cases of Melanoma and 1,953 cases of Squamous Cell Carcinoma, other forms of skin cancer, occurred among the participants during that period.
Based on these data, the Harvard researchers used statistical analysis to calculate the participants’ relative risk of developing different types of skin cancer, in relation to the extent of coffee and other caffeinated foods they reported consuming in their diets.
When the researchers ranked women participants according to their reported caffeine consumption, they found that the women in the top 20% of participants (those with the highest caffeine consumption) had an 18% lower risk of developing Basal Cell Carcinoma than the bottom 20% of the women (those with the lowest caffeine consumption). For men, the risk was 13% lower for the highest caffeine consumers versus the lowest.
These results held after controlling for other known skin cancer risk factors such as hair color and sunburn history, the researchers found.
The findings were even more pronounced when the researchers isolated those women in the top group who drank more than three cups of caffeinated coffee per day and compared them to those in the bottom group who drank less than one cup per month.
The women drinking three or more cups of caffeinated coffee per day were 21% less likely to develop Basal Cell Carcinoma than those who drank less than one cup per month. A similar comparison among men showed a 10% reduction in risk.
Similar reductions in Basal Cell skin cancer risk were observed in people who consumed caffeine from other sources such as tea, cola and chocolate. However, drinking decaffeinated coffee was not associated with a decreased risk of Basal Cell Carcinoma.
“These results really suggest that it is the caffeine in coffee that is responsible for the decreased risk of basal cell carcinoma associated with increasing coffee consumption,” said Dr. Jiali Han, the study’s principal author.
“Caffeine inhibits tumor progression. We saw the effect in mice and thought we should do this research to see if it applies to humans, too,” Dr. Han explained.
The study, however did not find any correlation between coffee consumption or caffeine intake and incidence of either of two other forms of skin cancer, Squamous Cell Carcinoma or Melanoma (Melanoma being the most deadly form of skin cancer).
As noted above, only 1,953 cases of Squamous Cell Carcinoma and 741 cases of Melanoma occurred among the 112,897 participants included in the data for this study.
“It is possible that these numbers are insufficient for any association with coffee consumption to be seen,” said Dr Han. “As the study participants are followed for a longer time, the number of cases of these conditions is likely to increase. We may be in a position in 10 years’ time to better address this issue,” Dr. Han said.
“Our data indicate that the more caffeinated coffee you consume, the lower your risk of developing basal cell carcinoma,” Dr. Han, the study’s principal author, said in a press release issued by the American Association for Cancer Research, the publisher of the journal Cancer Research, in which the study was published.
Even though Basal Cell Skin Carcinoma is a slow-growing cancer and is not life-threatening like Melanoma, it causes considerable morbidity and places a burden on health systems, says the American Association for Cancer Research.
“Given the large number of newly diagnosed cases, daily dietary changes having any protective effect may have an impact on public health,” Dr. Han said in the news release of the American Association for Cancer Research.
“[O]ur results add basal cell carcinoma to a list of conditions for which risk is decreased with increasing coffee consumption. This list includes conditions with serious negative health consequences such as type 2 diabetes and Parkinson’s disease,” he said.
However, Dr. Han stops short of recommending coffee for everyone. “I would not recommend increasing your coffee intake based on these data alone,” Dr Han said. While the study did show an association between higher caffeine consumption and reduced risk of basal cell carcinoma, it did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship.
Dr. Han told WebMD that “he’s not advising that people drink coffee and then bake at the beach.” “The best way to prevent skin cancer is to minimize exposure to ultraviolet light from the sun or tanning booths,” he says.
Other experts also urged caution in construing the new research findings.
Dr. Albert Lefkovits, an associate clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and practicing dermatologist in New York City, told HealthDay, “I have many patients with multiple basal cell cancer lesions who drink a lot of coffee.”
Dr. Lefkovits cautions people not to think that coffee can substitute for sunscreen. “If you want to drink coffee, go ahead,” he said. “But it doesn’t permit you to neglect using a complete sun protection regimen that includes seeking shade, covering up with sun-protective clothing, including wide-brimmed hats and UV-blocking sunglasses, and wearing broad spectrum sunscreen every day.”
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