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A study published July 1 in the journal Cancer Research suggests that drinking caffeinated coffee could lower the chances of developing basal cell carcinoma, the most common form of skin cancer. The study also found that caffeinated tea, cola and chocolate also appears to reduce risk.
Women in the study who drank more than three cups of caffeinated coffee per day were 21 percent less likely to develop the disease than women who drank less than one cup per month. Among men, the risk reduction was 10 percent.
"It's the caffeine that's most likely responsible for the beneficial effect," said study co-author Jiali Han, an associate professor at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, in Boston. "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."
Han said that it's likely that the more you drink, the lower the risk of basal cell cancer. But he's cautious about recommending coffee for everyone. "I'm not going to say we need to promote coffee based on this research, but this is just one more addition to the list of ways coffee has been associated with positive health benefits," he said.
The new research adds to a range of recent studies that have shown that coffee may protect against some illnesses, including type 2 diabetes, heart failure, Parkinson's disease, liver cancer and cirrhosis of the liver, and that it might improve exercise performance.
Basal cell skin cancer begins in the outer layer of skin and is usually found on areas of the body exposed to the sun. 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 authors analyzed more than 20 years of data from the Nurses' Health Study, a large and long-running study designed to track women's health, and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study, a similar project that involved men. More than 112,000 people were included in the analysis.
While the study uncovered an association between greater caffeine consumption and reduced risk of basal cell cancer, it did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship.
Some experts urged caution about the new study. Rob van Dam, an associate professor in the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at National University of Singapore, said that while the study is exciting, the contrast in risk between coffee drinkers and non-drinkers was relatively small.
Van Dam said the potential benefit from caffeine may not be as valuable as other known prevention strategies. "We have very obvious ways to decrease your risk of basal cell carcinoma, methods that have been proven to be effective," he said.
Dr. Albert Lefkovits, an associate clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, noted that coffee can vary greatly in its caffeine content, depending on the size of the cup and the strength of the brew. He said he also hasn't seen a correlation between coffee drinking and reduced risk of skin cancer in his practice. "I have many patients with multiple basal cell cancer lesions who drink a lot of coffee," he noted.
Lefkovits doesn't want people to think coffee is the new 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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