Wellness: Java for Life?

The fountain of youth may be as close as your nearest coffee shop, or so they say.

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Thursday, March 05, 2009

Coffee may make you a happier person, a nicer and more open-minded person, a more intelligent, alert and beautiful person who lives a healthier life—and lives it longer.

We coffee drinkers just knew it all along, but medical science in recent years has been abuzz with confirmation that our faith is more than just a happy-dance of caffeinated brain cells.

C'mon, you're saying (especially if you are coffee-deprived as you're reading this), extend your lifespan? Consider a study published in the June 2008 Annals of Internal Medicine. Tracking 129,000 people over two decades, scientists at the Autonomous University of Madrid and the Harvard School of Public Health concluded that, compared with those who shunned coffee, women drinking four to five cups of "black sunshine" a day were 34 percent less likely to die, and men drinking more than five cups a day were 44 percent less likely to die—of heart disease, that is. (All of them will eventually die of something.)

Not only that; they found that the coffee drinkers were less likely to die prematurely from any cause—women 26 percent less and men 35 percent less.

"The more coffee you drink, the less risk of mortality you have," Esther Lopez-Garcia, Spanish epidemiologist and the study's leader, told the press. "The general idea is that coffee is not so bad."

In recent years, often with scientists setting out to prove its harmful effects, coffee has been shown to lessen the likelihood and severity of Alzheimer's disease, many types of cancer, liver disease, depression, Type II diabetes, gallstones, kidney stones, and Parkinson's disease. Additionally, it seems efficacious in controlling some skin conditions, reducing inflammation and serving as a potent painkiller.

Many of these benefits come straight from caffeine, and you don't have to be a javaholic to get a therapeutic dose. A daily consumption of "more than five cups," for example, may seem like a lot, but a "cup" as typically defined in scientific studies contains 100 milligrams (mg) of caffeine. A 16-ounce Starbucks "Grande" (medium-size) coffee, for instance, contains a whopping 300 mg of caffeine.

Coffee is more than just caffeine, of course. A University of Minnesota study published in 2006 found that women who drank more than six cups of caffeinated coffee a day were 22 percent less likely than coffee avoiders to develop diabetes, but those who drank decaf fared even better, with a 33 percent risk reduction. A variety of minerals and nutrients, of which coffee is a rich source, seem to be at work.

Coffee is an especially powerful source of the antioxidants known to counteract cancer, aging and a variety of ills. A cup of the old bean juice, after all, has the antioxidant punch of three oranges. Antioxidants may very well be coffee's secret weapon against cancer, according to Karen Collins, a nutrition advisor for the American Institute for Cancer Research. Commenting in June on the Spanish study of coffee and longevity, Collins said, "Coffee drinkers who were scared off years ago by reports that it poses a health threat have no reason to be afraid."

Coffee's no longer bad for you? "Early thoughts that it might be a cancer risk have been put to rest," she says. "That was the main fear about coffee. Clearly there's a concern for people having problems sleeping at night, for being careful during pregnancy and for effects on blood pressure. There's some component in coffee that seems to make esophageal reflux disease worse, but it's been clarified that it's not caffeine, so a switch to decaf is not the answer."

Still, caffeine is the main point of coffee, and coffee is the caffeine-delivery vehicle of choice for most caffeine users. "If you're a healthy adult, there's no reason you shouldn't use as much caffeine as you're comfortable using," says self-described caffeine authority Bennett Alan Weinberg, who coauthored with writer Bonnie Bealer The Caffeine Advantage (The Free Press, $24).

Yes, a minority of people get tense or have other adverse reactions when they drink coffee, Weinberg says. For them, the advice is simple: cut back, or just don't use it. But the rest of us can now drink java without feeling the least bit guilty.

"One thing that has haunted caffeine is the idea, going back hundreds of years, that if you're using a drug, you may think you're feeling good but you will pay the piper sooner or later," Weinberg says. "In other words, you're being a bad boy."

Now the evidence strongly suggests that cupping a cappuccino is good for your brain. Coffee improves short-term memory, reaction times and some brain functions we associate with intelligence, a 2005 study concluded. Subjects drinking caffeinated coffee showed heightened activation in those parts of the prefrontal lobe responsible for "executive memory, attention, concentration, planning and monitoring," according to the researchers. In other words, they got smarter.

Research has shown that coffee slows down age-related memory loss. A recent four-year, 7,000-person study found that women 65 and older who enjoyed more than three cups of coffee per day showed 33 percent less decline in memory than women who drank one cup or less.

Weinberg points to recent research at the Weizmann Institute in Israel suggesting caffeine may be "the only known substance that can augment brain functions by altering the physical structure of the brain." The Weizmann Institute observed nerve-cell branches, under the influence of caffeine, growing longer and making new synaptic connections. What's more, new spines and branches began to grow. "It showed that caffeine grows brain cells in the area of the brain responsible for long-term memory," Weinberg says.

As outlandish as this may sound, we coffee hounds have no trouble believing it. After all, drinking coffee actually makes people more open-minded, according to researchers at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. Moderate doses of coffee allow us to accept ideas contrary to our preconceptions because the heightened function of our caffeine-buzzed brains makes us more able to concentrate on and appreciate the reasoning of the arguments that underlie other people's opinions, the researchers found.

Small wonder that 19th-century French historian Jules Michelet gave much credit for the Western enlightenment to the "sparkling outburst of creative thought" that arose when "the advent of coffee& created new customs and even changed the human temperament." Small wonder that both the French and American revolutions were spawned over meetings in coffee houses as conspirators poured down this "wine of Araby," this elixir of life, this nectar of the gods, this balm of the mind, this rocket fuel of the intellect.

Good heavens! Maybe I should cut back on the caffeine when I write these things.

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