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Drink Coffee for Longevity?

If you have trouble getting motivated in the morning without copious amounts of coffee, you’re far from alone. Just look at the number of people standing in line at your local Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts establishments. And that doesn’t even include all the people frequenting their local internet coffee bar or stopping at the nearby mom and pop coffee shop or brewing their java at home. While the verdict is still out on whether coffee confers more advantages or disadvantages healthwise, there is now another piece of information in coffee’s favor. New research shows that your favorite morning beverage might help you live longer.

The study, which was conducted at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, found that drinking coffee every day is linked to a lower risk of death.1 These results were based on an analysis of the medical records of more than 215,000 men and women between the ages of 45 and 75. They were from an exceptionally varied ethnic pool, with 25 percent identified as whites, 22 percent Latinos, 19 percent Japanese-Americans, 17 percent African-Americans, and seven percent native Hawaiians.

After comparing coffee intake to death rates, the researchers discovered that consumption of one cup of coffee daily was linked with a 12 percent drop in the risk of mortality. And if a little coffee was good, more was even better. Those who drank two to three cups daily had an 18 percent reduction in mortality risk. Interestingly, this beneficial effect held true whether the subjects consumed regular coffee or decaf, which would mean the health value is in the coffee itself rather than the caffeine.

The study was not designed to prove cause and effect, but it does appear to establish a connection between coffee drinking and longevity. The findings are also bolstered by the large size and diversity of the population sample included. What’s more, another new study, this one conducted at the School of Public Health at Imperial College London in the United Kingdom, showed that drinking coffee may lower the risk of dying from all causes.2

This second investigation was even larger, including more than 500,000 participants from 10 European countries. It found that despite the vastly different methods of coffee preparation common in each nation, consumption of any form of coffee was related to a reduced chance of death. The data suggested that inflammation markers in the blood were lower and liver function was improved in coffee drinkers, and the risk of mortality from circulatory and digestive diseases was particularly improved.

But while the many die-hard coffee fans out there are probably cheering, we do need to keep in mind that there are also plenty of things about coffee that are not so positive for your health. Right off the bat, caffeine is an issue. It has been associated with numerous unpleasant effects including nervousness, insomnia, stomach upset, and increased heart rate. Plus, it’s addictive, and, as soon as you try to cut back on your usual caffeine intake, you can experience withdrawal symptoms including headaches, fatigue, and irritability. For a more in-depth look at caffeine’s effects, read Jon Barron’s article Caffeine: Health Benefits and Health Risks.

Perhaps you noticed where I pointed out that decaf confers the same longevity benefits and you’re thinking, “Well there’s my ticket. I’ll switch to a strictly decaffeinated regimen of coffee drinking.” If so, you need to know that may not be safe either. A 2002 study at the University of Alabama at Birmingham found that female decaf coffee drinkers may have a greater risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis.3

In other words, while coffee does appear to confer some benefits including the potential for a longer life, possible protection from Alzheimer’s disease, and a reduced risk of having a stroke, it also can be harmful. It is certainly not a case of “if a little a good, a lot must be better,” despite the results of the recent studies. So if you choose to consume coffee, you might want to limit it to two to three cups a day max—where the longevity benefits topped out—when you do indulge to avoid the problems associated with coffee. Make sure, too, that you drink it early in the day so your sleep isn’t disturbed. Consumed carefully in moderation, you may be able to reap coffee’s health benefits without much harm.

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