The coffee drinker’s guide to better brain health

coffee brain health Alzheimer's disease

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 concerned because neuroscience shows that coffee has neuroprotective effects.

Neuroscience and coffee.

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

Studies of Finnish coffee aficionados found drinking two or three cups daily was associated with a decreased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

A similar result was observed US neuroscientists followed a group of coffee-drinking 65 to 88-year-olds who were starting to show the first signs of memory loss. Over a four year period, the coffee-drinking volunteers were assessed neurologically. And rather than relying on the recall or dietary surveys of coffee intake, volunteers’ blood caffeine levels were also monitored at each visit to the lab.

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

And (this is the crucial bit) these were people 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.”🌱

Gary Arendash

Dr Arendash is also studying the effects of caffeine on the brains of mice with Alzheimer’s disease. Mice who drink caffeinated water perform better on short-term memory and thinking tests.

Dr Arendash is convinced that caffeine protects his brain:

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

Gary Arendash

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 reduced total and all cause-specific mortality.

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 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.”

Neal Freedman

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.

Coffee is the world’s major food source of antioxidants which protect the cells from damage, disease and ageing. 🌱

Caffeine acts on the brain by linking to molecules on the surface of 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 does not lower dementia or Alzheimer’s disease risk (this was found in the Finnish study and in similar studies elsewhere).  This could be due to the 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 are well aware of the stimulating effects of caffeine. We feel more alert and energetic and have greater powers of concentration (which is the point, really!).  But higher doses can cause adverse effects such as anxiety, restlessness, insomnia, and a racing heart.

Also, coffee drinking can’t offset genetic risks. Exercise, good nutrition, social connectedness, and other lifestyle factors may be protective. No single 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 well-being.


2017 Research Update

Coffee consumption seems generally safe within usual intake levels, with summary estimates indicating the 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, the incidence of and mortality from cardiovascular disease, and the incidence of cancer, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, cirrhosis, and diabetes. But robust randomised controlled trials are needed to understand whether these observed associations are causal.


2023 Research Updates

🌟🌱 Important New Research

In a 2021 study from Edith Cowan University, older adults were assessed every eighteen months for ten years to see if there was a relationship between coffee consumption and the onset of dementia. The researchers found that people with a higher coffee intake had a decreased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and a slower rate of cognitive decline. Lead researcher Dr Samantha Gardener believes that coffee could even be used in the future to delay or slow the development of dementia.

“We need to evaluate whether coffee intake could one day be recommended as a lifestyle factor aimed at delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. If the average cup of coffee made at home is 240g, increasing to two cups a day could potentially lower cognitive decline by eight per cent after 18 months. It could also see a five per cent decrease in amyloid accumulation in the brain over the same time period. It’s a simple thing that people can change. It could be particularly useful for people who are at risk of cognitive decline but haven’t developed any symptoms. We might be able to develop some clear guidelines people can follow in middle age and hopefully it could then have a lasting effect.”

Samantha Gardener

Drinking coffee improves the gut microbiome, directly impacting the brain through the gut-brain connection. Coffee consumption specifically increases a type of gut bacteria that is linked to a healthy immune system. This bacteria is also reduced within the guts of people with Alzheimer’s disease. Interestingly, when people showing early signs of memory loss are given this type of bacteria each day in a pill, they experience significant improvements in their memory.

🌱 New and interesting research:

  • Coffee provides neuroprotection against dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases too. Drinking coffee roughly halves the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. In addition, coffee consumption reduces the risk of developing multiple sclerosis and may even slow disease progression in those with the relapse-remitting form of the disease.
  • Coffee protects against certain cancers: colon, breast, prostate, gallbladder, endometrial, melanoma and liver, and brain cancer.
  • Research has now shown that administering pure caffeine alone doesn’t affect the core markers of either Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease. Instead, it’s the other components of coffee that work to protect brain cells.
  • Regarding antioxidants, decaffeinated coffee has a similar level to caffeinated coffee. However, cold coffees (like iced lattes) have decreased levels (because heat is needed to extract the antioxidants from the coffee grounds!). The caffeine content is the same between hot and cold coffees.

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13 Comments

  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: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21880846
      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

  9. تمريض منزلي on December 14, 2022 at 8:42 pm

    I had a great time reading your article and found it to be extremely helpful.

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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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