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By Karen Kaplan, Los Angeles Times

In their continuing quest to prove that coffee is indeed a health food, medical researchers analyzed the health records of nearly 180,000 Americans and determined that the ones with a daily java habit were less likely to get a common type of liver cancer than their less-caffeinated counterparts.

The study, presented this week at the American Association for Cancer Research’s annual meeting in San Diego, may not be enough to get your coffee break covered by your health insurance, but the results were striking.

Compared with people who drank no more than six cups of coffee per week, those who drank one to three cups per day were 29 percent less likely to develop hepatocellular carcinoma, or HCC, which is the most common form of liver cancer. Serious coffee drinkers — those who downed four or more cups per day — were 42 percent less likely to be diagnosed with the disease.

“Now we can add HCC to the list of medical ailments, such as Parkinson’s disease, type 2 diabetes, and stroke, that may be prevented by coffee intake,” study leader V. Wendy Setiawan, an assistant professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California’s Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, said in a statement.

Though she is not a physician, she added: “Daily coffee consumption should be encouraged in individuals who are at high risk for HCC.”

Hepatocellular carcinoma accounts for about 85 percent of all liver cancers in the United States, and kills about 16,000 people a year, according to 2008 review article in the Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 3.2 out of every 100,000 Americans is diagnosed with HCC each year, while researchers at the National Cancer Institute say the rate is 4.9 cases per 100,000 Americans.

Setiawan and her colleagues decided to look for a link between HCC and coffee consumption after epidemiological studies from other countries suggested that the drink could reduce the risk of the cancer.

They examined data on 179,890 African-Americans, Native Hawaiians, Japanese Americans, Latinos and Caucasian adults who enrolled in the Multiethnic Cohort Study in the 1990s. The study participants reported their coffee-drinking habits (along with lots of other dietary data) when they joined the study.

Eighteen years after the study began, 498 of the volunteers had developed HCC. But the risk wasn’t spread evenly among coffee drinkers and non-drinkers. Although the researchers controlled for factors such as the volunteers’ body mass index, drinking and smoking habits, ethnicity and other factors, they found that these things didn’t affect the relationship between coffee consumption and HCC.

Setiawan said she wasn’t sure why coffee seems to protect the liver, but the research team intends to investigate the link (if any) between java and chronic liver diseases.

And in case you were wondering, the study was not bankrolled by Starbucks. Funding came from the National Cancer Institute.

Photo: AFP.com

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