I’ve been a coffee drinker for about 37 years. During this span of time, I have occasionally been worried by reports that coffee consumption is bad for your health. It gets blamed for stomach disorders, high blood pressure, heart disease, and, if you can believe it, even the jitters. Yet, every now and then, I’d read an article that commends coffee drinking as beneficial for health. For some strange reason, I tend to find those articles more reasonable and persuasive. Hmmm.
I just finished another of this kind of article. It appears in a recent edition of the New York Times with the headline: “Coffee Drinkers May Live Longer.” Here’s how the article by Tara Parker-Pope begins:
Your morning cup of coffee may start to taste even better after a major government study found that frequent coffee drinkers have a lower risk of dying from a variety of diseases, compared with people who drink little or no coffee.
The report, published online in The New England Journal of Medicine on Wednesday, analyzed the coffee-drinking habits of more than 400,000 men and women ages 50 to 71, making it the largest-ever study of the relationship between coffee consumption and health.
Previous studies have offered conflicting results on the relative benefits or harms associated with regular coffee consumption. While coffee contains caffeine, a stimulant that may temporarily increase heart rate and blood pressure in some people, coffee also contains hundreds of unique compounds and antioxidants that may confer health benefits. Further confusing much of the research into coffee is the fact that many coffee drinkers are also smokers, and it has been difficult to untangle the relative health effects of coffee and cigarettes.
In fact, as Parker-Pope explains in her article, coffee drinkers tend to engage in a variety of behaviors that do not promote health. “They ate more red meat and fewer fruits and vegetables, exercised less and drank more alcohol – all behaviors associated with poor health.” Ouch.
The National Institutes of Health study of 229,119 men and 173,141 women who were members of the American Association of Retired Persons controlled for behaviors known to be unhealthy so as to focus only on the impact of coffee drinking on health. And what did they find?
[T]he data showed that the more coffee a person consumed, the less likely he or she was to die from a number of health problems, including diabetes, heart disease, respiratory disease, stroke, infections and even injuries and accidents.
Over all, the risk of dying during the 14-year study period was about 10 percent lower for men and about 15 percent lower for women who drank anywhere from two cups to six or more cups of coffee a day. The association between coffee and lower risk of dying was similar whether the coffee drinker consumed caffeinated or decaffeinated coffee.
The actual conclusion of the NIH study did not joyfully declare “Live Long! Drink Coffee!” Rather, it found: “In this large prospective study, coffee consumption was inversely associated with total and cause-specific mortality. Whether this was a causal or associational finding cannot be determined from our data.” So the experts are not claiming that coffee actually helps you live longer. No causal relationship here.
Perhaps there isn’t anything in coffee that helps you live longer. Maybe the health benefits come, not from the drink itself, but from behaviors associated with drinking coffee, such as, sitting down for a few moments of quiet relaxation or engaging in stimulating conversation with friends. Who knows? In the meanwhile, I am drinking my cup of coffee this morning, thankful for the possibility that it may be enhancing my health as well as my enjoyment of this day.