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March 31, 2015 | 2 minute read

Headline Headaches: Alcohol, Coffee and Liver Cancer

22007913_sLast week’s release of our latest report from the Continuous Update Project, on liver cancer, received excellent press coverage, for which we are grateful. We know how tough it can be to bottom-line the sometimes complicated findings from scientific research, and we appreciate the good work of those in the media who do so on a daily basis.

Any reporter will tell you that they write the story, but it’s their editor who writes the headlines. And today, headlines do the heavy lifting of driving web traffic and reader engagement. They are the gatekeepers who determine whether or not you click to get the full story, on skim past to the next headline. Which is why, when they’re misleading, they can do real damage.

Take this example, from a UPI story: “Coffee Erases Liver Cancer Risk Caused By Daily Alcohol Consumption.

That’s not the take-home message from the report we want to convey. Our CUP expert panel weighed the evidence on coffee and alcohol separately, and found strong evidence that each plays a different role in liver cancer risk: Drinking coffee lowers risk. Drinking alcohol increases it.

Both of those findings are true. But linking them in the way the headline does is not supported by the evidence. And if you were to read only that headline, or this one: “Three Drinks a Day Can Trigger Liver Cancer, Coffee Offsets It” you could come away thinking of coffee as a magical elixir that can mitigate a lifestyle of heavy alcohol consumption.

It isn’t. Heavy alcohol consumption has serious and well recognized links to several liver diseases, including cirrhosis, which is a cause of liver cancer. Between 10 and 20 percent of heavy drinkers develop cirrhosis, according to the American Liver Foundation.

What the report clearly provides is an opportunity to maximize your protection against liver cancer – and other chronic diseases as well. If you choose to drink at all, limit your intake. Do everything you can to get to and stay at a healthy weight. And, yes: stick to non-sugary beverages, and consider making coffee one of them.

And when it comes to something as important as cancer risk, always read beyond the headline.

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