Harvard Study says Coffee is Amazingly Good for your Health
Great Coffee not only perks you up in the morning, it's good for your health in more ways than you ever imagined.
A rapidly growing body of research shows coffee can protect us from an array of maladies ranging from dementia, Parkinson's and heart disease to prostate cancer, diabetes — and yes, even depression. Plus, people who drink coffee live longer.
Not bad for something your mother warned you not to drink as a kid because it would stunt your growth.
That turned out to be a myth, as have many other warnings about the consumption of coffee.
For a long time, it seemed every study that said coffee is good for you was followed by a study that found the opposite. Well, forget all that. The debate is over. We love coffee, and coffee loves us back.
That assurance comes from the Harvard Gazette, which examined a range of studies last fall and found "an emerging picture of coffee as a potentially powerful elixir" against a host of health threats.
"Coffee may be the healthiest beverage you can drink," writes Dr. Sanjiv Chopra, a physician who teaches at the Harvard Medical School and serves on the medical staff at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. "Most people don't even know how effective coffee appears to be in preventing a variety of very serious illnesses."
In his new book "The Big Five: Five Simple Things You Can Do to Live a Longer, Healthier Life," Chopra devotes the entire first chapter to the health benefits of coffee. He says decades of study have shown that drinking generous amounts of coffee is one of the easiest, most effective ways to prevent disease.
"I've had my two cups of coffee already," he told me on an early morning phone call. "What I recommend is that people drink two to four cups a day. The best way to drink coffee is black. If you want a little sugar or milk, go ahead, but don't add skim milk or artificial sweeteners."
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Chopra has been preaching the virtues of coffee for more than two decades. He became interested in the subject after research suggested that people who drank coffee were far less likely to develop diseases of the liver. He's a liver specialist, so he asked his medical students and residents to quiz patients about their coffee consumption. They couldn't find a single patient in the liver unit who drank coffee. That's how effective coffee was at preventing liver problems, he says.
At the time, attitudes about coffee were mixed. Chopra admits many of his colleagues were "amused" by his passion for coffee. But mounting research is beginning to bring them around.
A turning point came when the New England Journal of Medicine published a study in 2012 that found men who drank six or more cups of coffee a day had a 10 percent lower risk of death. For women, the risk of death was 15 percent lower.
"I got hundreds of emails from around the country that day," Chopra recalls. "They all said, 'You're vindicated.'"
"Coffee is a complex beverage. It's very difficult to pinpoint which component of coffee is responsible for the benefit," Dr. Frank Hu, a Harvard professor of nutrition and epidemiology, told the Harvard Gazette.
Coffee contains more than 1,000 compounds that interact with our body. One of them, of course, is caffeine. But Chopra doesn't see that as the silver bullet.
For one thing, many of the health benefits of coffee are found even in people who drink decaf. And plenty of other beverages give us a jolt of caffeine, without improving our health in any discernible way. "Coca-Cola has no proven benefit," Chopra says. "It's not the caffeine."
What it could be are the antioxidants, including chlorogenic acid, that can be found in coffee.
If you want to stay healthy, antioxidants are one of the best things you can put in your body. Fruits and vegetables are a prime source of them, as are tea and red wine. But one study found Americans get more of their antioxidants from coffee than any other food or drink.
Research also suggests that coffee has a special ability to increase the body's production of something called granulocyte-colony stimulating factor, which boosts our brain in a variety of ways. Interestingly, this effect doesn't occur with caffeine by itself. Nor does it occur with decaffeinated coffee. Apparently, something about the interaction between caffeine and other compounds in coffee is what gives us this mental lift.
What interests me most about coffee is the cognitive benefits. This column is devoted to brain health, prevention of dementia and successful aging. Here's what recent research tells us about the link between coffee and our ability to remain mentally sharp in our later years:
A study that followed 1,400 people in Sweden and Finland over 20 years found those who drank three to five cups of coffee a day were 65 percent less likely to develop dementia.
Researchers in Florida measured the levels of caffeine of older people with mild cognitive impairment, which typically precedes Alzheimer's, and found that up to four years later, those who had an amount of caffeine equivalent to three cups of coffee a day were far less likely to have progressed to dementia.
A 2016 review of nine studies involving more than 32,000 participants for up to 28 years found those who drank one to two cups of coffee daily were at the lowest risk for cognitive disorders.
It's important to note that these all were observational studies, not clinical trials. They can strongly point to a connection between coffee and reduced risk of dementia, but they don't prove it.
Still, Chopra says findings like these are meaningful, even if the public and the medical profession have been slow to warm up to the health benefits of coffee.
"There is no way primary care physicians can be experts on a particular aspect like coffee and its health benefits," he says. "If you go to your primary care doctor tomorrow and say, 'I heard coffee's really good for you,' likely they will say, 'Everything in moderation. These studies come and go.' Well, in reality, the studies for coffee keep coming. It's been well-studied."
How much stock you put in the studies is up to you. But if you're serious about finding ways to keep your brain in good working order and fend off dementia as you age, Chopra says coffee can help.
"In terms of reducing the risk of dementia, there are a few things we can do," he says. "The first is physical exercise. The second is coffee. The third is learning something new. It's not playing chess, or Sudoku all the time. You'll get good at that, but it doesn't decrease the chance of dementia. You need to learn something new, whether it's a new language, or ballroom dancing, and that keeps us young. The fourth thing is meditation."
Maintaining a balanced diet also is good protection against dementia. But it's hard to do. So much of the food and drink we're tempted to reach for during the day is nutritionally bereft. Soft drinks. Candy bars. Potato chips. Microwave popcorn. They're all bad things to put in our body.
Fortunately, your craving for coffee is the exception. It's not a guilty pleasure. It's a healthy habit you're free to indulge in. So have a cup — and then go for a refill.
As Chopra likes to point out, Voltaire lived to the ripe old age of 83, and he drank 50 to 70 cups of coffee a day.
That might be a bit much. But you're entirely welcome to enjoy three or four cups of coffee a day. It's healthy to the last drop.