Want to live long and prosper? Coffee may be your friend

Coffee can get a bad press. It has been associated with raised adrenaline and cortisol levels which may heighten your attention in the short term, but can cause energy crashes and adrenal exhaustion. Some people say that the raised level of alertness only brings you up to the same level as people who aren’t dependent on that caffeine kick to raise their attention levels. And although coffee is associated with enhanced athletic performance, caffeine can also irritate the bowel lining – with consequent results. This is especially important to note for people about to head out for that long run, or who plan on taking a sports gel for the first time (these can often be loaded with caffeine – beware). However, coffee also contains hundreds of unique compounds and antioxidants that may deliver health benefits. There is also the issue of the entanglement of coffee-drinking and smoking – figuring out which parts of this couple play which part in the documented effects is notoriously difficult.

So, there is mixed evidence as to whether coffee is good for us, which also depends upon what we want from coffee in a functional sense. This study conducted by researchers at the National Institutes of Health in the USA, adds a lot more to the ever-changing picture. They found that frequent coffee drinkers have a lower risk of dying from a variety of diseases compared with people who drink little or no coffee.

The study looked at the information gathered from 229,119 men and 173,141 women who belonged to a retirement association between 1995-96. They were then followed (not literally, that would be creepy and very expensive) until 2008, but which point 52,000 had died. As found before, the researchers discovered that coffee drinkers were more likely to be smokers, ate more red meat, fewer fruits and vegetables, exercised less and drank more booze – all behaviors associated with poor health. But once those risks were statistically controlled, the data showed that the more coffee that a person consumed on average, the less likely he or she was likely to die from a number of health problems including heart disease, respiratory disease, diabetes, stroke, infections and even injuries and accidents.

Overall, the risk of dying during the 14 year study period was about 10 per cent lower for men and 15 per cent lower for women who drank anything from between two to six (or more) cups of coffee a day. And it didn’t seem to matter if it was caffeinated or decaffeinated coffee either.

It is definitely worth noting that this is only an association, not a directly causal effect, and the effect size is relatively modest. But is does perhaps add to the evidence that coffee drinking isn’t just another risk factor. In the meantime, good luck in figuring out which of the 1,000 of more compounds in coffee (or combinations thereof) might be responsible for any beneficial health effects. Rather you than me.

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