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More Coffee, Less Melanoma

Public Health
April 13, 2015

It turns out that coffee may be good for you, according to a study that was published recently in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. Lead author was Erikka Loftfield (Public Health), who defended her dissertation in February. She and her co-authors found that drinking four or more cups of caffeinated coffee a day reduces the risk of developing cutaneous malignant melanoma, a deadly form of skin cancer, by 20 percent. Melanoma is the fifth most common type of cancer in the United States and the leading cause of skin cancer death.

Earlier studies had reported an “inverse association between coffee drinking and melanoma, but overall previous results have been inconsistent,” Erikka says. This study used data from the large NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study that controlled for age, sex, education, smoking, physical activity, alcohol consumption, a family history or cancer, and estimated ambient residential ultraviolet radiation exposure. The study followed more than 400,000 participants ranging in age from 50 to 71 years old for an average of 10 years. Participants, who were cancer-free at the beginning of the study, reported their typical coffee intake.

During the course of follow-up, nearly 3,000 cases of malignant melanoma occurred. Given the large size of our cohort and large number of melanoma cases, we had good statistical power and were not surprised to find that higher coffee drinking was associated with lower risk of melanoma.” After adjusting for age and gender, there were 55.9 cases of melanoma yearly per 100,000 people among those who drank at least four cups a day, versus 77.64 cases yearly per 100,000 people among the people who didn’t drink coffee.

The association did not hold for those who predominantly drank decaffeinated coffee or for non-invasive melanoma that affects only the top layer of skin. But if you don’t like coffee, don’t force yourself to drink it. “The most important thing individuals can do to reduce their risk of melanoma is to reduce sun and ultraviolet radiation exposure,” Erikka says.

The research was published widely in scientific and popular media, including The New York Times.

Erikka grew up in Massachusetts and attended Cornell University, where she majored in biology. Following graduation, she served in Namibia for two years with the Peace Corps as a math and science teacher. While working on her MPH, which she completed in 2012, Erikka also worked on epidemiological studies as an intern at the Yale Global Health Initiative and as an Epi-Scholar at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. 

Erikka’s dissertation explores the associations of coffee consumption with various health outcomes, including oral health, mortality and melanoma, as well as the associations of coffee metabolites with colorectal cancer and usual coffee intake with systemic markers of inflammation and immunity. Her adviser is Susan Mayne.

After graduation, Erikka will begin a postdoctoral fellowship in the Divisions of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics at the National Cancer Institute, where she will continue to research the association between diet, including coffee, and cancer.