Can Coffee Drinking Habits Affect Cognitive Function?

Coffee is one of those drinks that grows on you. Even if your day has gone a little bit sour, nothing does a better job at lifting your spirits than a good ol’ warm cup of coffee. Plus, it’s so versatile; there are a hundred ways it can be served and it never gets old because we have so many favorite versions. So it really isn’t a surprise that this beverage quickly becomes a habit we can’t do without.

Unfortunately, science is about to burst our little bubble of coffee-heaven. It appears that if you overdo your coffee drinking habit, you could end up impairing your brain and your overall cognitive function.


What Latest Research Has To Say

Individuals who never or rarely drank coffee or increased their coffee consumption consistently may develop MCI.

A study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease closely monitored the coffee drinking habits of 1,445 people over a period of 3.5 years. All these people were aged between 65 and 84 and were a part of the Italian Longitudinal Study on Aging (ILSA). The researchers not only observed the coffee drinking habits of these individuals, but also kept a special lookout for mild cognitive impairment (MCI) – the decline in cognitive abilities like memory, problem-solving, and thinking skills. MCI is common amongst the elderly Americans and is considered to be one of the most obvious risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease.1


Findings Of The Research

Researchers found that individuals who increased their coffee intake by more than 1 cup each day during the study period were twice as likely to suffer from MCI as compared to those who reduced their coffee intake to less than 1 cup each day.

Participants who increased their coffee intake over time were also found to be 1.5 times more likely to develop MCI as compared to those who maintained a steady rate of coffee consumption, that is no more or no less than 1 cup of coffee each day.


Strangely enough, however, participants who maintained a consistent rate of moderate coffee consumption which is defined as 1 or 2 cups each day, showed a lower risk of MCI when compared to those who had never or rarely drank coffee.

There was no significant link found between coffee consumption and the incidence of MCI amongst participants who consistently increased their rate of coffee consumption (defined as more than 2 cups each day) as compared to participants who never or rarely drank coffee.


What The Researchers Had To Say

Based on the study mentioned above, researchers suggest that older individuals with normal cognitive function who either never or rarely drank coffee or increased their coffee consumption consistently over time have a higher risk of developing MCI.

Hence, it becomes clear that a moderate consumption of coffee could have neuroprotective benefits against MCI, further confirming previous studies that extolled tea and coffee for their long-term protective impact on the brain.


So How Does Coffee Protect The Brain?

Caffeine fires neural activity in the brain by blocking the activity of adenosine, a sleep-inducing neurotransmitter.

Coffee contains multiple bioactive compounds, most of which are antioxidants. The most notable of these compounds is caffeine which affects the central nervous system in ways more than one.


Caffeine Promotes The Release Of Other Hormones

Caffeine fires neural activity in the brain by triggering the release of other hormones like dopamine, noradrenaline, and serotonin.2 These stimulate your brain to improve your mood, make you more attentive and boost your learning and recall capacity.

Caffeine And Adenosine

One of the main ways in which coffee is thought to improve cognitive function over time is in the way its caffeine content interacts with adenosine receptors. Adenosine is a sleep-inducing neurotransmitter in the brain. Neurons in your brain have very specific receptors that allow adenosine to attach to. Once it binds itself to these receptors, adenosine slows down the activity of those particular neurons making you less alert and more drowsy.3


The level of adenosine in our bodies usually builds up gradually throughout the day and starts binding itself to the neurons in your brain at night so that you feel drowsy and go to sleep.

Caffeine has a similar molecular structure as that of adenosine. For this reason, when caffeine is present in your body, it competes with adenosine to bind itself to those same receptors. In this way, caffeine blocks the function of adenosine, preventing it from slowing down neural activity and promoting central nervous system stimulation that makes you feel more alert.4

Caffeine And Alzheimer Patients

Caffeine blocks the damage of beta-amyloid plaques and tangles in the brain of an Alzheimer's patient.

A protein fragment called beta-amyloid builds and forms tangles and plaques in the brains of people suffering from Alzheimer’s. These clumps of beta-amyloid interfere with communication between the nerve cells in the brain, leading to poor cognitive function over time.5

When caffeine binds itself to adenosine receptors and inhibits the function of adenosine, it also reduces the damage caused by a certain protein called beta-amyloid, thus offering to protect the already vulnerable brain from more cognitive damage.6 7

The team of researchers also noted that animal studies conducted in the past have concluded that an optimal amount of caffeine is needed to reduce activation of certain adenosine receptors.8 This fact may explain why participants in this latest study who never or rarely drank coffee or drank too much of the beverage were at a higher risk of MCI as compared to those who were consistent with their caffeine intake habits.


Drinking coffee in moderation and being consistent with your coffee-drinking habits can improve cognitive function.

Drinking coffee in moderation and being consistent with your coffee-drinking habits can, over time, protect your brain from age-related degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer’s Disease. To avail this benefit of coffee, you need an optimal level of caffeine in your system. Therefore, not drinking it at all, or rarely drinking it or drinking too much of coffee will not give you any neuroprotective benefits.

More research is needed in the field to find out what fuels coffee’s protective effects against MCI. If studies with longer follow-up periods could be conducted on a large scale, it would hopefully address other possible biased conclusions and confounding sources of information. This way, it would serve to open up a more natural cure for Alzheimer’s Disease and other brain-degeneration diseases through diet.