A morning cup of coffee has potential health benefits

Dear Doctors: Where do we stand on coffee these days? There always seems to be a new study saying that coffee is either healthy or bad for you. I’ve even read that coffee helps your brain stay sharp. I love my daily morning cup and hope the latest coffee news is good.

dear reader: As long as people have been drinking coffee, they have been arguing about it. Historians trace the origins of coffee to the wild plants found in Ethiopia, and its emergence as a global drink until the mid-1500s. Over the centuries, a variety of religious, political, economic, and health bans on coffee have been enacted, all to no avail.

Today, people around the world drink an estimated 2.25 billion cups of beverage each day. Instead of arguing about coffee, we moved on to studying it. In the early days of coffee research, enthusiasts held troubling conclusions that linked their morning cup to health problems such as heart disease, high blood pressure, pancreatic cancer and asthma. It was later revealed that these studies included smoking participants, and that adverse effects may have arisen from tobacco use, not from coffee consumption.

Recent research reveals a sometimes surprising array of potential health benefits for moderate coffee drinkers. These include a lower risk of health problems including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, chronic liver disease, Parkinson’s disease, depression, liver cancer and endometriosis. And while caffeine’s stimulant effect is a major reason for coffee’s popularity, it’s unlikely to play a role in the health benefits. Scientists believe thanks to the dozens of other complex compounds that coffee contains.

In recent months, new research has been published containing more good news about coffee. A study in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, published last fall, examined the effects of coffee consumption on cognitive impairment in 227 adults in their 60s. Nobody has memory problems. The health questionnaire that was released included questions about how much coffee each person drank and how often. Cognition was assessed every 18 months over the 10 years of the study. When the research was over, the data suggested a link between daily coffee consumption and lower and slower rates of cognitive decline and cognitive impairment.

A recent study from China linked coffee drinking to a longer life. Researchers followed the health outcomes of nearly 170,000 adults in their mid-50s for seven years. None of them had cancer or cardiovascular disease. The data showed that those who drank a moderate amount of coffee each day – between two and five cups – were less likely to die during the study range. Interestingly, the health benefits were even extended to coffee drinkers who added a teaspoon of sugar to their cup. The use of artificial sweeteners, the addition of dairy products and artificial bleaches were not addressed.

It’s important to remember that the caffeine in coffee can interfere with sleep and cause stress. As we wrote in a recent column, older adults, who often metabolize caffeine more slowly, may have to adjust their habits as they age.

Eve Glazier, MD, MBA, is an internist and associate professor of medicine at UCLA. Elizabeth Ko, MD, an internist and assistant professor of medicine at UCLA.

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