Saturday, May 21, 2011

Coffee and Breast Cancer---New Findings Support More Consumption, Not Less

Coffee is good for you. More evidence is here. And this time it's aimed directly at women.

A new study from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden shows that higher-than-normal coffee consumption significantly decreases the risk of ER-negative breast cancer.*

This study, which was published as a provisional PDF in Breast Cancer Research on May 11, 2011, included almost 6,000 women, who were included in six different cancer registries in Sweden. Available information about the women, who were all between the ages of 50 and 74, included health status, lifestyle habits, and various other factors (like whether the women were taking hormone therapy) that needed to be factored into the analysis in order to make it valid.

The study was well designed in that it was a population-based and case controlled. When the researchers compared women who drank 5 or more cups of coffee a day with those who drank one cup or less, they found a modest overall decrease (about 20%, with a trend towards significance) in all types of breast cancer. However, when they looked at ER-negative breast cancer in isolation, there was a markedly and significantly reduced risk: 57%.

Swedes are huge consumers of coffee. Median intake is 3 cups per day. So this is an ideal population in which to study the health effects of coffee. This study is encouraging for many reasons, but especially so, because at one time, many people mistakenly thought that coffee was associated with an increased risk of breast cancer.

This may seem like an outdated view now, but today I was talking to a woman in her 70’s. She was proudly telling me that all of her children had attended college---and that none of them were chronic alcohol drinkers, smokers, or coffee drinkers. I almost winced at this statement. Many people continue to inveigh against coffee drinking—but the data are the data---and they are overwhelmingly positive.

The researchers suggest that it is the polyphenols in coffee that contribute to its anticarcinogenic effect, with a significant impact coming from trigonelline in this case. In addition, coffee increases the plasma levels of enterolactone, which is associated with a decreased risk of ER-negative breast cancer.

This is not the first study suggesting that coffee is protective against breast cancer, but it is one of the largest and one of the first to focus exclusively on ER-negative breast cancer.

For many women, including myself, this type of news makes coffee drinking that much more satisfying.

Many thanks to Dr. Li and his colleagues in Sweden!

*ER stands for estrogen receptor. In contrast to ER-positive breast cancer, ER-negative breast cancer is not driven by hormones and is considered harder to treat.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

My Mother's Melitta

When I was 15, I started brewing coffee with my mother’s Melitta Drip Coffee Maker. I learned by watching her. She would carefully take out a filter and line the plastic cone that sat on top of a glass carafe. The coffee dripped very slowly and seemed to take a long, long time to brew.

It smelled amazing. I watched in utter fascination. Then, I started taking sips when she wasn’t looking. We never had a conversation about whether I should drink coffee or not. I just started making and drinking coffee---all day long, and into the night.

Coffee made me feel better, more alive, and more focused. When I started drinking coffee, I became a better student, a better friend, a better big sister, a better daughter. Still, I assumed that on some level I was harming my health. I secretly feared that one day if I didn’t stop in time, my obsession with coffee would catch up with me. Like my friends who smoked cigarettes or went out drinking, I treated my penchant for Maxwell House like a vice.

Little did I know that two decades letter, researchers would celebrate coffee as a health-enhancing beverage. When I first heard the good news, it made perfect sense to me. Previously, coffee was assumed to have negative effects on health, but in fact, many of the studies on which those assumptions were based were flawed, mainly because they failed to factor out other health habits, such as cigarette smoking. Twenty years ago who would have thought that large-scale coffee-drinking would take hold with such intensity in the United States? Where would we be without cafés? Who would we be now, culturally, if there was no Starbucks or Peete’s or local independent coffee house? Where would we go? The coffeehouse/café tradition, which goes back to the Middle East and Europe, first took hold in the United States more than 100 years ago mainly in large cities. It continues to evolve and influence the physical and social rhythms of our lives. Despite all of the ambiguity about the role of coffee in our society, and the occasional hand-wringing about its effect on health---all available evidence shows that coffee is overwhelmingly good for us physically, psychologically, and socially.