Coffee could lower risk of dying from oral cancers, study finds

December 13, 2012 | by Roberta Nichols

Let’s have another – three – cups of coffee.

If you power back four cups of coffee a day, you might be too jittery to hold the cup, but you also might be helping reduce your risk of dying from mouth and throat cancer – by half. That’s the finding in a new American Cancer Society study in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

Coffee and oral/pharyngeal cancer Drinking more than four cups of caffeinated coffee a day is linked to a 49 percent lower risk of oral/pharyngeal cancer death compared to drinking no coffee or only an occasional cup, researchers found. (Image credit: iStockphoto)

Researchers led by epidemiologist Janet Hildebrand analyzed coffee and tea consumption by nearly a million people enrolled in the Cancer Prevention Study II, a cohort begun 30 years ago by the  American Cancer Society.

They found that drinking more than four cups of caffeinated coffee a day was linked to a 49 percent lower risk of oral/pharyngeal cancer death compared to drinking no coffee or only an occasional cup.

Researchers found only a slight benefit for those who drank more than two cups of decaf daily and no benefit for tea drinkers. Among the 968,432 men and women who were cancer-free when they enrolled, 868 people died of oral/pharyngeal cancer during 26 years of follow-up.

"We really don't clearly know the mechanism," Hildebrand told WebMD. "But we do know that coffee contains hundreds of biologically active compounds."

Previous studies have confirmed that coffee contains antioxidants, polyphenols and other ingredients that may help to protect against cancer developing or progressing.

Joel Epstein, D.M.D., M.S.D., director of oral medicine at City of Hope,  was not involved in the study, but in an interview for WebMD.com called the findings “fascinating and remarkable.” The work comes on the heels of other studies suggesting coffee drinkers might have a lower risk of diabetes, he said.

The National Cancer Institute estimates that 52,000 men and women will be diagnosed with head and neck cancers in 2012. Accounting for approximately 3 percent of all cancers in the U.S., they are nearly twice as common among men as women and are typically diagnosed in people over 50.

Risk factors include tobacco and alcohol use and infection with the human papillomavirus. Symptoms include a lump or sore that doesn’t heal, difficulty swallowing, a change or hoarseness in the voice, and a persistent sore throat.

Hildebrand said that she and her colleagues are not advocating that everyone start drinking four cups of day. In fact, she said, more research is needed before coffee is definitively linked to cancer prevention.

Toward that end, the American Cancer Society is gearing up for the Cancer Prevention Study 3, in which it hopes to enroll at least 300,000 adults from various racial/ethnic backgrounds across the U.S.

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