Kicking your morning off with a cup of joe may provide more than a caffeine boost. A recent study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that older coffee drinkers — even those who swill decaf — have a lower risk of death than those who don’t drink coffee.
“Coffee is one of the most widely consumed beverages, both in the United States and worldwide,” the authors of the study write. “Since coffee contains caffeine, a stimulant, coffee drinking is not generally considered to be part of a healthy lifestyle. However, coffee is a rich source of antioxidants and other bioactive compounds.”
Previous studies have looked at the link between coffee consumption and major causes of death with varying results. “There has been a concern that drinking coffee might increase risk of death, but I think our findings show evidence against that,” says lead researcher Dr. Neal Freedman of the division of cancer epidemiology and genetics at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), which is part of the NIH.
In the study, researchers from the NCI analyzed 229,119 men and 173,141 women ages 50 to 71 who participated in the National Institutes of Health–AARP Diet and Health Study. The participants filled out a questionnaire about their coffee intake at the beginning of the study in 1995-1996 and were followed until their death or the study’s completion in December 2008. The participants were sorted into 10 coffee-consumption-frequency categories ranging from zero to six cups per day. The majority of the participants also indicated whether they were regular or decaf drinkers.
In relation to men and women who did not drink coffee, those who consumed three or more cups per day had approximately a 10% lower risk of death. Men who drank six or more cups of coffee per day had a 10% lower risk of death compared with men who did not drink coffee. Women who drank six or more cups a day had a 15% lower risk.
Overall, coffee drinkers were more likely to smoke cigarettes and consume red meat and alcohol than those who didn’t drink coffee. However, when the researchers adjusted for these risk factors, they found that drinking coffee was inversely related to death. Coffee drinkers were less likely to die from heart disease, respiratory disease, stroke, injuries and accidents, diabetes and infections, but there did not seem to be an association with decreased cancer deaths.
Since the study was observational only, the authors couldn’t conclude that coffee drinking actually reduces death risk. The researchers note that coffee intake was recorded in a self-report at a single time point and may not reflect long-term consumption patterns. As a result, more research is needed to see if the trend holds true across varying populations. But the researchers speculate that if the relationship between coffee drinking and decreased death risk is directly associated, it likely has to do with coffee’s many compounds. “There are an estimated 1,000 different compounds in coffee that can have a range of effects,” says Freedman. “Caffeine is the most studied, but we don’t think it has to do with caffeine because the same results were found in decaf drinkers. Coffee also has a lot of antioxidants, and many other compounds are associated with inflammation and insulin resistance.”
Further analysis of coffee’s compounds is needed to understand how the mechanisms work. And how you drink your coffee also matters. “How the coffee is prepared is also important,” says Freedman. “Some people like espresso, some like French press, and these can change the compounds in the coffee and we were unable to study that.”
Coffee abstainers, don’t panic: Freedman indicates there’s no need to hurry out for a Venti latte. “It’s important that we look at these findings cautiously,” he says. “The different compounds in coffee can have different effects on health for different people.”
The study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.