Can drinking coffee actually reduce dementia risk?

Can drinking coffee reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s? (Photo: Getty Images)
Can drinking coffee reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s? (Photo: Getty Images)

A new study from The Institute for Scientific Information on Coffee says that drinking coffee may reduce the risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

“Research suggests that a higher intake of coffee and caffeine, up to 5 cups of coffee per day, could act as [a] preventative on [the] risk of developing neurodegenerative conditions, including Parkinson’s disease,” Elisabet Rothenberg, the lead author of the study and associate professor at Kristianstad University in Sweden, told The Mirror.

It’s important to note that, according to its website, members of the Institute for Scientific Information on Coffee (a not-for-profit organization), include six major European coffee makers.

That said, this isn’t the first study to look at coffee and neurodegenerative diseases. “There have been some scientific studies that have found a relationship between coffee consumption and a delay in the onset of Alzheimer's,” Keri Gans, registered dietitian and author of The Small Change Diet, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “However, more research is needed.”

A 2018 study published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience found a similar association between coffee consumption and a reduced risk for Alzheimer’s and Parkison’s.

In that study, researchers looked into the potential “neuroprotective effects” of certain ingredients in coffee. One ingredient in particular, phenylindanes — formed when coffee beans are roasted (and found in higher amounts in dark roasts), according to study authors — inhibits both beta amyloid and tau, two protein fragments common in Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, which researchers called “noteworthy.” In the study, they wrote that phenylindanes are a “promising lead for the development of drug-like molecules to treat neurodegenerative disorders.”

While some study results are promising, Diane Vizthum, registered dietitian and research nutritionist for Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Lifestyle that some of the health benefits associated with coffee are just that — associations, with the Alzheimer’s Society casting a skeptical eye, stating that, in some cases, “the results cannot distinguish between cause and effect.”

Coffee may help with other diseases

However, the popular beverage may have other health benefits beyond potentially protecting against neurodegenerative diseases. “Other studies that have looked at the consumption of coffee/caffeine have revealed a possible reduced risk of heart disease, Parkinson’s, certain cancers, and type 2 diabetes,” says Gans.

There’s some evidence that drinking coffee may help improve blood sugar.

A 2015 study in the American Chemical Society’s Journal of Natural Products found that two ingredients in coffee, cafestol and caffeic acid, “increased insulin secretion when glucose was added.” The researchers also found that cafestol in particular “increased glucose uptake in muscle cells, matching the levels of a currently prescribed antidiabetic drug.”

Other research, including a 2019 study in the aptly-named journal, The Prostate, has shown that substances in coffee (in particular, cafestol and kahweol acetate) inhibit the growth of prostate cancer.

Drinking coffee has also been linked to a lower risk of colon cancer, according to 2016 study of more than 5,000 men. "The more coffee consumed, the lower the risk," Stephen Gruber, MD, PhD, senior author of the study and director of the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, told ScienceDaily. The researchers found that consuming moderate amounts of coffee (1 to 2 servings daily) was associated with a 26 percent reduced risk of colorectal cancer, while drinking more than 2.5 servings daily was associated with up to a 50 percent reduction in risk — and it didn’t matter whether the coffee was caffeinated or decaffeinated.

There is such a thing as too much coffee

Although coffee, in general, is safe to drink, there is such a thing as too much. A 2019 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that drinking six or more cups of coffee per day can raise the risk of heart disease by up to 22 percent. The researchers found that excessive coffee consumption can increase high blood pressure, which can lead to several health issues, including heart disease.

So what’s a good amount coffee drinkers should aim for? Vizthum tells Yahoo Lifestyle that the recommendation for the average healthy adult is about 3-5 cups a day (one 8-oz coffee has 80 to 100 mg of caffeine), or up to about 400 mg of caffeine daily (women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should cap caffeine at 200 mg). But Vizthum points out that, even within that range, it really depends on the individual. “Some people feel fine at that level, but others can feel jittery, anxious, and have a rapid heartbeat,” she says.

Vizthum also notes that “when you start adding cream and sugar, that can make it a less healthy beverage.” As Gans puts it, some people are “making their daily cup of joe more like a slice of cake.”

While consuming coffee may come with several health benefits, that doesn’t mean you should run out to your nearest Starbucks if you’re not currently a coffee drinker. “If you don’t like coffee, you don’t need to start drinking it,” says Gans.

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