Would you consider coffee a health food? Probably not, but now a number of studies point to a cup of Joe as being powerfully beneficial to our bodies. It turns out coffee not only reduces the risk of developing diabetes, heart disease and Parkinson’s, but can also help to prevent cirrhosis of the liver and perhaps even Alzheimer’s and dementia.
One of the most convincing studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that habitual coffee consumption was consistently associated with a lower risk of Type 2 diabetes. In a report that combined statistical data from several studies, researchers found that people who drank four to six cups of coffee a day had a 28 percent reduced risk compared with people who drank two or fewer. Those who drank more than six had a 35 percent risk reduction.
You might think caffeine, coffee’s most famous compound, is responsible. But you’d be wrong. Studies that looked at decaffeinated coffee alone found the same degree of health benefits. Exactly why coffee is so healthy isn’t known, but several explanations are possible. For one, coffee contains antioxidants that help control cell damage that can contribute to the development of diseases. It is also a source of chlorogenic acid, which has been shown in animal experiments to reduce glucose concentrations.
In other studies it was shown that cardiovascular risk decreases with coffee drinking. Using data on more than 27,000 women ages 55 to 69 in the Iowa Women’s Health Study who were followed for fifteen years, Norwegian researchers found that women who drank one to three cups a day reduced their risk of cardiovascular disease by 24 percent compared with those drinking no coffee at all.
One caveat: as the quantity increases, the benefit decreases. At more than six cups a day, the risk is not significantly reduced. Still, after controlling for age, smoking and alcohol consumption, women who drank one to five cups a day — caffeinated or decaffeinated — reduced their risk of death from all causes during the study by 15 to 19 percent compared with those who drank none.
The researchers surmise that antioxidants in coffee may dampen inflammation, reducing the risk of disorders related to it, such as cardiovascular disease. The research was published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
As if that’s not enough to order a second cup, another study published in the same journal, found that a typical serving of coffee contains more antioxidants than typical servings of grape juice, blueberries, raspberries or oranges. And you thought blueberries won the anti-oxidant prize. Even the researchers admitted to being surprised by their findings.
These same anti-inflammatory properties may explain why coffee appears to decrease the risk of alcohol-related cirrhosis and liver cancer. Findings confirming the connection were published in The Archives of Internal Medicine.
Coffee has also been linked to lower risks for heart rhythm disturbances (another heart attack and stroke risk factor) in men and women, and lower risk for strokes in women. In a study of about 130,000 Kaiser Permanente health plan members, people who reported drinking 1-3 cups of coffee per day were 20% less likely to be hospitalized for abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias) than nondrinkers, regardless of other risk factors. And, for women, coffee may mean a lower risk of stroke.
For Parkinson’s disease, the data is also consistent: higher consumption of coffee is associated with decreased risk of Parkinson’s. That seems to be due to caffeine, though exactly how that works isn't clear. And coffee has also been linked to lower risk of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. A 2009 study from Finland and Sweden showed that, out of 1,400 people followed for about 20 years, who reported drinking 3 to five cups of coffee daily were 65% less likely to develop dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, compared with nondrinkers or occasional coffee drinkers.
Some naysayers still believe that coffee drinking, and particularly caffeine consumption, can have negative health consequences - -and there’s some basis for their thinking. One study published in in The Journal of the American College of Cardiology, for example, suggests that the amount of caffeine in two cups of coffee significantly decreases blood flow to the heart, particularly during exercise at high altitude. Clearly, don’t drink coffee while hiking up the Rocky Mountains.
In any case, before increasing your coffee intake significantly, be sure to speak with your physician.
Robin Westen is ThirdAge’s medical reporter. Check for her daily updates.
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