Isn’t a hot cup of coffee just what you need to kick-start your day or to get through that boring meeting? The caffeine in coffee produces an instant alertness that coffee drinkers thrive on. Of course, these well-known stimulatory effects are temporary, but that does not make coffee any less attractive!
In fact, researchers are studying these very effects of caffeine on the brain in the long run. It turns out coffee may indeed have long-term perks, with research showing that those who consume it regularly are less likely to develop dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in later life.
Coffee Drinkers Have A Lower Risk Of Dementia
It all started with studies on people with mild problems in brain function. Participants who did not develop dementia later in life were found to have nearly twice as much caffeine in their systems compared to those who did develop dementia.1 The researchers concluded that caffeine consumption may stop the progress of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) to dementia in people who already have MCI. As the name suggests, in this condition people have noticeable, though not major, problems with memory and cognition beyond what is normal for their age.
A study that reviewed a range of studies on the connection between caffeine and cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease found that caffeine may have a role to play in arresting cognitive decline.2 The researchers’ own Cardiovascular Risk Factors, Aging and Dementia (CAIDE) study found that people who drank between three and five cups of coffee every day during midlife reduced their risk of developing dementia by a whopping 65% later in life! Now, that is no small chance.
Moreover, this effect was only found with coffee and not so convincingly with tea, indicating that caffeine may have a role to play here (caffeine content is higher in coffee than in tea).3
How Caffeine Works
How exactly caffeine impacts the brain is not fully understood and a number of theories have been making the rounds. One explanation is that dementia and a lack of oxygen both push the brain into a similar form of stress that eventually results in the loss of nerve cells. Caffeine interrupts this mechanism by stopping receptors in the brain from recognizing the lack of oxygen and, thus, preventing them from causing tissue damage.4
Dementia, and specifically Alzheimer’s disease, is a dreaded predicament for many, more so because there is no known cure nor a way to reverse it completely. The knowledge that incorporating moderate amounts of caffeine into your daily routine can cause a substantial difference in your risk of dementia is very promising.
Striking A Balance: The Golden Number
An important question here is, what does a moderate amount mean? The FDA cites 400 mg caffeine a day as a safe amount for healthy adults – that is about four to five cups of coffee a day.5
But remember, while the studies are promising, they are not conclusive. More in-depth studies (of larger groups and longer duration) will help firm up their results.
Another question that remains unanswered is whether the risk of dementia will decrease if older people start drinking coffee later in life. Different studies have reported completely opposing conclusions, so more research is clearly needed.
The Downsides Of Caffeine Consumption
While a couple of cups of coffee a day should be alright for most of us, some groups of people may be better off saying no to coffee.
Caffeine can sometimes be a contributing factor for abortion in pregnancy. Nearly every doctor warns against having more than a cup of coffee a day during pregnancy. According to a study in which 330 women who had a spontaneous abortion were participants, consuming more than 375 mg of caffeine in a day during pregnancy may increase the risk of spontaneous abortion.6
While pregnant women tend to metabolize caffeine more slowly than others, the exact mechanism by which spontaneous abortion is triggered is still not understood.7
Moderate amounts of coffee, thanks to the antioxidants in caffeine, may help prevent heart disease. But have too much of it and your risk of heart disease actually goes up.8If genetics or your lifestyle already puts you at risk of heart disease, that cup of joe may be the last straw.
People suffering from anxiety disorders often find that caffeine makes the anxiety worse. Too much caffeine or too frequent use can even increase symptoms.9Even among the healthy, having more than five cups of coffee causes side effects such as palpitations, restlessness, and indigestion.10
Alternatives To Caffeine For Preventing Dementia
If you just cannot stomach a cup of coffee, there are other natural ways to tackle dementia. Herbs such as lemon balm and rosemary have been shown to be effective in preventing dementia, as have ashwagandha and brahmi when used under the guidance of an Ayurvedic doctor.11
Perhaps the most well-known natural herb for preventing dementia and related degenerative disorders is gingko.12
Coffee is one of those drinks that polarize the world into those who swear by it and those who detest it! Whatever your choice of beverage, adding a healthy dose of coffee to your diet can possibly help keep your brain sharp and active well into old age. As with everything else, moderation is key. However, if you do not drink coffee at all, there just is not enough evidence to suggest that you start.
|↑1||Cao, Chuanhai, David A. Loewenstein, Xiaoyang Lin, Chi Zhang, Li Wang, Ranjan Duara, Yougui Wu et al. “High blood caffeine levels in MCI linked to lack of progression to dementia.” Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease 30, no. 3 (2012): 559-572.|
|↑2||Eskelinen, Marjo H., and Kivipelto, Miia . “Caffeine as a protective factor in dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.” Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease 20, no. S1 (2010): 167-174.|
|↑3||Eskelinen, Marjo H., Tiia Ngandu, Jaakko Tuomilehto, Hilkka Soininen, and Miia Kivipelto. “Midlife coffee and tea drinking and the risk of late-life dementia: a population-based CAIDE study.” Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease 16, no. 1 (2009): 85-91.|
|↑4||Maia, L., and A. De Mendonça. “Does caffeine intake protect from Alzheimer’s disease?” European Journal of Neurology 9, no. 4 (2002): 377-382.|
|↑5||FDA to Investigate Added Caffeine, FDA.|
|↑6||Rasch, Vibeke. “Cigarette, alcohol, and caffeine consumption: risk factors for spontaneous abortion.” Acta obstetricia et gynecologica Scandinavica 82, no. 2 (2003): 182-188.|
|↑7||Cnattingius, Sven, Lisa B. Signorello, Göran Annerén, Britt Clausson, Anders Ekbom, Elisabeth Ljunger, William J. Blot et al. “Caffeine intake and the risk of first-trimester spontaneous abortion.” New England Journal of Medicine 343, no. 25 (2000): 1839-1845.|
|↑8||Cornelis, Marilyn C., and El-Sohemy, Ahmed. “Coffee, caffeine, and coronary heart disease.” Current opinion in lipidology 18, no. 1 (2007): 13-19.|
|↑9||Lee, Myung Ae, Cameron, Oliver G. and Greden, John F. “Anxiety and caffeine consumption in people with anxiety disorders.” Psychiatry research 15, no. 3 (1985): 211-217.|
|↑10||Shirlow, M. J., and C. D. Mathers. “A study of caffeine consumption and symptoms: indigestion, palpitations, tremor, headache and insomnia.” International Journal of Epidemiology 14, no. 2 (1985): 239-248.|
|↑11||Singh, Narendra, B. R. Pandey, and Pankaj Verma. “An overview of phytotherapeutic approach in prevention and treatment of Alzheimer’s Syndrome & Dementia.” International Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Drug Research 3, no. 3 (2011): 162-172.|
|↑12||DeKosky, Steven T., Annette Fitzpatrick, Diane G. Ives, Judith Saxton, Jeff Williamson, Oscar L. Lopez, Gregory Burke et al. “The Ginkgo Evaluation of Memory (GEM) study: design and baseline data of a randomized trial of Ginkgo biloba extract in prevention of dementia.” Contemporary clinical trials 27, no. 3 (2006): 238-253.|