Drink To Your Health: Study Links Daily Coffee Habit To Longevity

Nov 16, 2015
Originally published on November 19, 2015 2:04 pm

If you have a daily coffee habit, here's something to buzz about: A new study finds those cups of joe may help boost longevity.

"In our study, we found people who drank three to five cups of coffee per day had about a 15 percent lower [risk of premature] mortality compared to people who didn't drink coffee," says one of the study authors, nutrition researcher Walter Willett of the Harvard School of Public Health. Decaf drinkers also saw benefits.

The findings, published in the journal Circulation, build on a body of evidence linking a coffee habit to potential health benefits.

As we've reported, previous research has pointed to a decreased risk of stroke. And, there's some evidence that a coffee habit cuts the risk of Type 2 diabetes, too.

Now, of course, it's possible to overdo it with caffeine. Research has shown that consuming more than 400 milligrams of caffeine can interfere with sleep and create feelings of unease. And some of us are even more sensitive. (I feel jittery if I have more than one strong cup!)

One study found that 200 milligrams of caffeine (the equivalent of about two cups of coffee) is an optimal amount to enhance cognitive function and mood among sleep-deprived people. But we don't all metabolize caffeine the same way.

As we've reported, the caffeine amounts in coffee vary wildly. One analysis, conducted by Bruce Goldberger, found a 16-ounce cup of caffeinated coffee from Starbucks could contain anywhere from 250 milligrams to more than 500 milligrams of caffeine.

"Not everyone reacts to coffee in the same way," says Andrew Maynard, who studies risk assessment at Arizona State University. He summarizes the benefits documented in this study as "small."

He says this study does not prove cause and effect between drinking coffee and living longer. Rather, it points to an association. "There are a lot of unknowns as to what [may explain] the increase in life expectancy," Maynard says.

Got more questions? So did we. Here's our conversation about the findings with study co-author Walter Willett, edited for length and clarity.

So, what do you think might explain this association? In the study, you point to compounds in coffee — such as lignans, quinides and magnesium — that may help reduce insulin resistance and inflammation. Prior studies have pointed to these as well.

We're not sure exactly how coffee is [linked] to all these benefits. The coffee bean itself is loaded with many different nutrients and phytochemicals. And my guess is that they're working together to have some of these benefits.

We [see] similar benefits from caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee. That's important, because it suggests that caffeine is not responsible for [the benefit].

So this may be welcome news to people who drink decaf?

Yes, because too much [caffeinated] coffee can cause insomnia and loss of sleep, and that's not a good thing!

The reduced risk of death was not seen among the coffee drinkers in your study who were smokers or former smokers.

Definitely. It's extremely important to disentangle the effects of coffee from the effects of cigarette smoking.

So, what's the take-home here? Is it that coffee can be part of a healthy lifestyle?

I think if people like coffee, it's fine to include it [as part of your daily habit]. So, certainly, [people] should not feel guilty about moderate coffee consumption. It definitely can be part of a healthy lifestyle.

I wouldn't suggest that someone who doesn't like coffee go out and drink it.

Are you a coffee drinker? Are these findings likely to influence your own behaviors?

Well, I really like a good cup of coffee. But if I have more than two cups a day, I really don't sleep as well. So, I've been switching more toward decaf or half decaf/half regular.

In this study, you also analyzed how coffee influenced the risk of specific diseases — or categories of diseases. What did you find?

We went beyond total mortality and looked at specific causes of death. And we found that people who drink moderate amounts of coffee have lower risk of [death] from cardiovascular disease, diabetes, neurologic disease [such as Parkinson's] and suicide.

Your findings come from data from two Nurses' Health Studies, which included about 167,000 women. And it also looked at the 40,000 men in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study.

As you point out, the participants in these studies are about 95 percent white, largely middle-class and well-educated. Can you extrapolate to other populations?

Yes, I'm quite sure these findings would apply to other populations. This is a biological relationship. And we basically have a common biology.

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Scientists have linked a daily coffee habit to a range of potential benefits, from a reduced risk of stroke to a lower risk of neurologic diseases, including Parkinson's. And a new study in the journal Circulation finds there may be another benefit too. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: One of the perks of working here at NPR is the coffee. It's free. Our cafe manager, Marco Martera, starts brewing at 6 a.m.

MARCO MARTERA: It's bottomless. Yes, it's completely free. You can get one, two, three cups of coffee.

AUBREY: As much as you want.

MARTERA: Yes, as much as you want.

AUBREY: Martera says he brews about 54 pounds of coffee beans a day.

MARTERA: (Laughter) They drink lots of coffee.

AUBREY: So what might this be doing to our bodies other than giving us a quick burst of energy? A new study suggests that people who consume moderate amounts of coffee each day may cut the risk of premature death. Here's Walter Willett of the Harvard School of Public Health. He's one of the authors of the paper.

WALTER WILLETT: In our study, we found that people who drank three to five cups of coffee per day had about a 15 percent lower mortality compared to people who did not drink coffee.

AUBREY: So a 15 percent lower risk of premature death.

WILLETT: That's right.

AUBREY: Now, it's not exactly known what could explain this effect. Prior studies have shown that certain bioactive compounds found in coffee beans may help regulate blood sugar and reduce inflammation, and Willett says this is a possible explanation.

WILLETT: The coffee bean itself is loaded with many different nutrients and phytochemicals. And my guess is that they're working together to have some of these benefits.

AUBREY: Now, it is possible to overdo it with coffee. I know I've certainly experienced the jitters from drinking too much. And if coffee starts interfering with sleep, as it does for lots of people, that certainly is not healthy. Andrew Maynard directs the Risk Innovation Lab at Arizona State University. He says interpreting the study is tricky.

ANDREW MAYNARD: This is part of the problem because not everybody reacts to coffee in the same way.

AUBREY: Given that the people in the study who drank decaf got the same reduction in risk, Maynard says there are a lot of questions.

MAYNARD: So we don't know whether it's coffee. We don't know whether it's just drinking a hot drink.

AUBREY: It could be here that people who drink coffee do other things that make them healthy. Is that right?

MAYNARD: Very much so. I'm intrigued by the idea that even just taking five minutes to sit down, relax and drink a hot drink may be associated with this decrease in the chances of dying.

AUBREY: So if you like coffee, drink up. It might promote longevity, and it'll definitely give you a lift. Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.