The coffee drinker’s guide to better brain health

This is your brain

Two early-morning long blacks. A lunchtime flat white (especially if I’m near a cafe). And sometimes a sneaky pick-me-up afternoon espresso.

Time to come clean: that’s a typical day for me.

I guess to many of you that might seem like WAY too much caffeine.  But I’m not too concerned because neuroscience shows that coffee has neuroprotective effects.

Neuroscience and coffee.

According to international statistics, the highest per capita coffee consumption in the world is among Finns with 12.0 kg in year 2007, followed by 9.9 kg among Norwegians, and 8.7 kg among Danes.

Some studies of Finnish coffee aficionados found that drinking two or three cups of coffee a day was associated with a decreased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

A similar story was found when US neuroscientists followed a group of coffee-drinking 65 to 88 year-olds who were just starting to show the first signs of memory loss.

The coffee-drinking volunteers were assessed neurologically over the course of two to four years, but rather than relying on the recall or dietary surveys of coffee intake, volunteers blood caffeine levels were monitored at each visit to the lab.

The results were intriguing —  moderate levels of caffeine in their blood (equivalent to about three cups a day) were associated with a reduced risk, or slower decline towards dementia. 

And (this is the important bit) these were people who were already showing signs of memory loss, or cognitive decline.  Coffee appeared to slow the dementia process.

US neuroscientist Dr Gary Arendash who conducted the blood caffeine study says,

“Coffee is inexpensive, readily available, easily gets into the brain, and has few side-effects for most of us.  Moreover, our studies show that caffeine and coffee appear to directly attack the Alzheimer’s disease process.”

Dr Arendash is also studying the effects of caffeine on the brains of mice with Alzheimer’s disease. He’s found that adding caffeinated water to rodents’ diet results in big improvements. The mice perform better on short-term memory and thinking tests. But only if they get enough caffeine.

Dr Arendash is convinced that caffeine is protecting his brain:

“I drink five to six cups a day, religiously”

It seems it’s not just your brain that benefits from coffee.  In other research published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, coffee drinkers were less likely to die from the following:

  • heart  disease
  • respiratory disease
  • stroke
  • injuries and accidents
  • diabetes
  • infections

BUT it didn’t protect against cancer.

Coffee consumption was inversely associated with total and cause-specific mortality. Whether this was a causal or associational finding cannot be determined from the data.

Dr Neal Freedman the scientist who lead the latest study says,

“Coffee is one of the most widely consumed beverages … but the association between coffee consumption and risk of death has been unclear. We found coffee consumption to be associated with lower risk of death overall, and of death from a number of different causes,”

It’s worth pointing out that that this does not mean coffee stops you from dying … it’s not that simple. As Dr Freedman says,

“Although we cannot infer a causal relationship between coffee drinking and lower risk of death, we believe these results do provide some reassurance that coffee drinking does not adversely affect health.”

How does coffee protect the brain?

Coffee is a complex mixture of biologically active chemicals including:

  • caffeine (of course)
  • chlorogenic acid
  • potassium
  • niacin
  • magnesium,
  • antioxidants.

In fact, coffee is the world’s major food sources of antioxidants which protect the cells from damage, disease and aging.

Caffeine acts on the brain by linking up to molecule on the surface a particular type of brain cell called a cholinergic neuron.  The cell surface molecule modulates the neuroprotective effects of caffeine. And, caffeine also triggers the same molecule to decrease proteins known to gather in the brains of Alzheimer’s disease patients.

Interestingly, drinking tea shows no link with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease risk reduction (this was found in the Finnish study and in similar studies elsewhere).  This could be due to lesser caffeine content in tea, or the fact that other components than caffeine in coffee confer the protective effect.

So, coffee protects the brain, but surely it can’t all be good news?                                       

Coffee-lovers amongst are well aware of the stimulating effects of caffeine. We feel more alert, energetic and have greater powers of concentration (which is kind of the point, really!).  But higher doses can cause negative effects such as anxiety, restlessness, insomnia, and a racing heart.

Also, coffee drinking can’t offset genetic risks.   Alzheimer’s disease, for example, is incredibly complicated. Exercise, good nutrition, social connectedness and a variety of other lifestyle factors may be protective. BUT a person’s risk is also determined by genes. No one behaviour or ‘magic bullet’ — like coffee drinking — can erase that risk.

If you’re a coffee drinker.  You know the drill – too much coffee too late in the day will wreck your sleep.  And a poor night’s sleep isn’t so good for boosting your mental powers the following day.

So, when you next wander into your local cafe for your daily dose, do so without the guilt, perhaps cut down on coffee later in the day, and know you’re doing your bit to maintain your brain health and wellbeing.

2017 Research Update:

Coffee consumption seems generally safe within usual levels of intake, with summary estimates indicating largest risk reduction for various health outcomes at three to four cups a day, and more likely to benefit health than harm.

In particular, coffee intake was inversely associated with all-cause mortality, incidence of and mortality from cardiovascular disease, and incidence of cancer, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, cirrhosis, and diabetes.

Robust randomised controlled trials are needed to understand whether the observed associations are causal. Importantly, outside of pregnancy, existing evidence suggests that coffee could be tested as an intervention without significant risk of causing harm. Women at increased risk of fracture should possibly be excluded.

Image credit: @rsseattle  flickr.

Some of this article was originally written for Starts at Sixty….but I’ve tweaked it for my blog.

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  1. Heather Smith on May 25, 2014 at 6:24 pm

    Love this.

    Does decaf coffee have the same benefits do you think Sarah ?

    Just posted a link to this article on my FaceBook page 🙂

  2. aphzal on May 25, 2014 at 6:25 pm

    i have been a coffee drinker, 2-3 cups/d for 45 years since i was a teenager; gald to hear of postive affects on cholinergic brain neurotransmitters

  3. Sarah, I need to mention the fallacy / misunderstanding regarding ANTIOXIDANTS in general. There are two classes of such. One for plants to protect against their ever-present pests, and the other for humans to protect agaianst untoward (!) oxidation. First these antioxidants are chemically completely different from one another. The plant antioxidants are xenobiotic (toxic) to humans. As such the body will try to eliminate them ASAP (within 20 to 60 minutes) But it is this very toxicity which sets up a process by which they initiate the production of the humans’ needed antioxidants. I have a paper which I distilled from the availabel research and would love to share it with your community as a guest writer.
    GIve me a nod.
    Dr Pieter Dahler, DDS, MD, ND (hon Professor), Ph.D

    • Sarah McKay on May 26, 2014 at 7:25 am

      Thanks Pieter – send me your paper to my email address and I’ll take a look. Thanks for this info about antioxidants too. Sarah

  4. Michelle Guillemard on June 23, 2014 at 5:35 pm

    More pieces like this please! Seriously, it’s great to read some positive, credible evidence about the effects of coffee,given we hear so much unfounded talk about how it is a “toxin”. Loved how you summed up the state of play of the science of coffee and its brain-related benefits too.

  5. john cannon on July 5, 2014 at 1:46 pm

    What kind of effect does caffeine have on blood pressure? Thank you John

    • Sarah McKay on July 5, 2014 at 4:53 pm

      Hi John – as far as I understand it temporarily increases blood pressure… I dug round a little and found this article for you:
      A meta-analysis done in 2013 (The effect of coffee on blood pressure and cardiovascular disease in hypertensive individuals: a systematic review and meta-analysis.) found that “in hypertensive individuals (people with high-blood pressure), caffeine intake produces an acute increase in BP for ≥3 h. However, current evidence does not support an association between longer-term coffee consumption and increased BP or between habitual coffee consumption and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease in hypertensive subjects.”
      Hope that helps! Cheers Sarah

  6. Caffeine and the brain – Brain and Mind on March 15, 2016 at 3:48 pm

    […] Source: Yourbrainhealth […]

  7. Robyn Dalby-Stockwell on November 27, 2016 at 4:02 pm

    I am delighted to learn that just for once something I enjoy is good for me. Not sure about the croissant though.

  8. Patty Neil on November 19, 2017 at 6:54 pm

    This confirms my experience with coffee. I pay attention to when I really want it and when I don’t (which is rare). Thank you for sharing this research

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About Dr Sarah

I’m an Oxford University-educated neuroscientist, presenter of ABC Catalyst, director of The Neuroscience Academy, and author of The Women's Brain Book. The neuroscience of health, hormones and happiness.

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