Coffee for Health & Longevity

Coffee for Health & Longevity

Julian Whitaker, MD

Since its discovery in the ninth century by an Ethiopian goat herder, to its spread throughout the Arab world and Europe, through its growing popularity in America after the Boston Tea Party, down to the current Starbucks craze, coffee has a hold on us. It’s easy to see why. A manuscript dating back to 1587 explained that coffee “…drove away fatigue and lethargy, and brought to the body a certain sprightliness and vigour.”

Your Brain on Caffeine

Caffeine, coffee’s best-known constituent, is particularly active in the brain. It binds to adenosine receptors, which prevents adenosine from exerting its usual calming effects and thus amplifies the energizing effects of dopamine and other neurotransmitters. In other words, caffeine lets your brain’s natural stimulants wake you up and increase your concentration and focus.

In addition to improving short-term mental function, caffeine also protects against neuro-degenerative disorders. Men who drink lots of coffee (28 ounces or more per day) have been shown to be five times less likely to develop Parkinson’s than those who don’t drink it. And in a recent study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, a high blood level of caffeine (equivalent to about three cups of coffee) dramatically slowed progression of memory loss in older people with mild cognitive impairment.

Caffeine boosts mood and wards off depression as well. Harvard researchers followed more than 121,000 female nurses for 10 years and discovered that those who drank four or more cups of coffee per day had a 20 percent reduced risk of developing clinical depression.

Defense Against Diabetes

But coffee is more than a cupful of caffeine. It’s also a rich source of polyphenols, other antioxidants, fiber—more than 1,000 bioactive compounds in all. One of the best studied is chlorogenic acid, a polyphenol that, among other things, slows absorption of glucose in the intestines and stimulates its transport into the muscles. This is the likely explanation for coffee’s protective effects against type 2 diabetes—regular and decaf coffee are associated with a 7 percent drop in risk for each cup consumed, according to one study.

Coffee also curbs appetite and facilitates the burning of fat in the liver, so it helps prevent obesity, the number-one risk factor for type 2 diabetes. A high intake was recently shown to reduce risk of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, which is exceptionally common in obese and diabetic individuals. And in animal studies, coffee staves off diabetes-related memory loss.

Matters of the Heart

The relationship between coffee and cardiovascular disease is somewhat murkier, and for years, people with hypertension and elevated lipids were told to avoid it. Caffeine can temporarily boost blood pressure, especially in those who are unaccustomed to it, and unfiltered coffee increases cholesterol and triglycerides. There is also weak evidence that a high intake may raise homocysteine, another risk factor for cardiovascular disease. However, emerging research suggests that benefits outweigh risks.

Antioxidants and other compounds in coffee have positive effects on inflammation, platelet aggregation, blood flow, and blood clot formation, and studies demonstrate that moderate consumption reduces risk of stroke and, at an optimal level of four cups per day, protects against heart failure.

Cuts Cancer Risk

A flurry of research over the past couple of years has examined the links between coffee and cancer, and, once again, it’s a clear winner. A 2011 meta-analysis of 59 studies involving more than 2 million study participants concluded that coffee consumption is inversely associated with the risk of cancer of the bladder, blood (leukemia), breast, colon/rectum, endometrium, esophagus, liver, mouth, pancreas, prostate, and throat.

Much of this research is coming out of Harvard. One recent study concluded that men who drank six or more cups a day had a 60 percent reduced risk of developing lethal prostate cancer; one to three cups lowered risk by 30 percent. Another found a significant correlation between coffee consumption (caffeinated only) and lower risk of basal cell carcinoma, the most common form of skin cancer.

Drink Up, Live Longer

Coffee also improves endurance and athletic performance, reduces risk of gout and gallstones, relieves headaches and strengthens efficacy of pain medications, helps prevent constipation and cavities, and improves hydration. (Claims linking coffee with dehydration are simply not true.) However, if you need one more reason to imbibe, consider this: Coffee may help you live longer.

In a 2012 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, coffee consumption and death rates were examined in more than 400,000 men and women age 50 and older. After adjusting for smoking (coffee drinkers are more likely to smoke) and other confounding factors, they found that coffee—regular and decaf—reduced risk of death from heart disease, respiratory disease, stroke, injuries and accidents, diabetes, and even infections. Three or more cups per day conferred a 10–15 percent lower risk of death.

The thing that gets me is that most of the news stories, interviews with scientists and physicians, and many of the studies themselves end with the admonition that “increasing coffee consumption as a public health strategy can’t be recommended.” That’s nonsense. The research is there. If you want to reduce your risk of virtually every significant disease—and live longer—drink coffee.


  • Drinking 3–6 cups of coffee per day is safe and beneficial for most people. Too much caffeine, however, makes some individuals jittery and can interfere with sleep. Experts recommended that pregnant women have no more than 200­–300 mg of caffeine per day. (A cup of coffee contains 80–100 mg.)


  • Cao C, et al. High blood caffeine levels in MCI linked to lack of progression to dementia. J Alzheimers Dis. 2012;30(3):559–572.
  • Freedman ND, et al. Association of coffee drinking with total and cause-specific mortality. N Engl J Med. 2012 May;366(20):1891–1904.
  • Muley A, et al. Coffee to reduce risk of type 2 diabetes?: a systematic review. Curr Diabetes Rev. 2012 May;8(3):162–168.
  • Wilson KM, et al. Coffee consumption and prostate cancer risk and progression in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2011 Jun;103(11):876–884.
  • Yu X, et al. Coffee consumption and risk of cancers: a meta-analysis of cohort studies. BMC Cancer. 2011 Mar;11:96.

Modified from Health & Healing with permission from Healthy Directions, LLC. Photocopying, reproduction, or quotation strictly prohibited without written permission from the publisher. To subscribe to Health & Healing, click here.

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