At last, an addiction I can be proud of. Having given up nicotine, alcohol and sin in general over the years, I was beginning to despair about the remaining unbreakable habits: sugar, butterfat… and caffeine. But now, suggests Wall Street Journal health writer Melinda Beck, caffeine might just be putting a little distance between Alzheimer’s and me. It might not be an anti-dementia guarantee, and it could have a few downer side effects, but still. A ray of sunshine on the addiction scene.
To judge by recent headlines, coffee could be the latest health-food craze, right up there with broccoli and whole-wheat bread.
But don’t think you’ll be healthier graduating from a tall to a venti just yet. While there has been a splash of positive news about coffee lately, there may still be grounds for concern.
- Cancer: Earlier studies implicating coffee in causing cancer have been disproven; may instead lower the risk of colon, mouth, throat and other cancers.
- Heart disease: Long-term coffee drinking does not appear to raise the risk and may provide some protection.
- Hypertension: Caffeine raises blood pressure, so sufferers should be wary.
- Cholesterol: Some coffee—especially decaf—raises LDL, the bad kind of cholesterol.
- Alzheimer’s: Moderate coffee drinking appears to be protective.
- Osteoporosis: Caffeine lowers bone density, but adding milk can balance out the risk.
- Pregnancy: Caffeine intake may increase the risk of miscarriage and low birth-weight babies.
- Sleep: Effects are highly variable, but avoiding coffee after 3 p.m. can avert insomnia.
- Mood: Moderate caffeine boosts energy and cuts depression, but excess amounts can cause anxiety.
So let’s see. My bone reports have actually upscaled recently, so all that butterfat and a few bone meds are outpacing the latte. I can fall asleep midway through a cappuccino, and I don’t have time to be depressed. Unlikely to get pregnant. Addiction situation looks better and better. Further insight comes from Duke University Medical Center psychophysiologist Jim Lane, who’s been studying the effects of caffeine for more than 25 years, and from a distinguished addiction psychiatrist (I wonder if I should volunteer for a study) at Vanderbilt University.
“When I went to medical school, I was told that coffee was harmful. But in the ’90s and this decade, it’s become clear that if you do these studies correctly, coffee is protective in terms of public health,” says Peter R. Martin, a professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at Vanderbilt University and director of the school’s Institute for Coffee Studies, founded in 1999 with a grant from coffee-producing countries.Still, many researchers believe that the only way to draw firm conclusions about something like coffee is through experimental trials in which some subjects are exposed to measured doses and others get a placebo, with other variables tightly controlled. When that’s been done, says Duke’s Dr. Lane, “the experimental studies and the [observational] studies are in very sharp disagreement about whether caffeine is healthy or not.”
His own small, controlled studies have shown that caffeine—administered in precise doses in tablet form—raises blood pressure and blood-sugar levels after a meal in people who already have diabetes. Other studies have found that caffeine and stress combined can raise blood pressure even more significantly. “If you are a normally healthy person, that might not have any long-term effect,” says Dr. Lane. “But there are some groups of people who are predisposed to get high blood pressure and heart disease and for them, caffeine might be harmful over time.”
Epidemiologists counter that such small studies don’t mirror real-world conditions, and they can’t examine the long-term risk of disease.
The debate goes on. Do people remember how many cups they drink? How big is your mug? How random is your study? Did your ancestors have a history of — uh, oh, my parents met and married in Brazil where I was born. Maybe that’s where it all started.
I will welcome your comments on caffeine addictions; they will be compiled over a take-out tall extra-foamy latte.