Does Coffee Lower the Risk of Alzheimer’s?

New research has put coffee fans into a buzz about the potential benefits of drinking their favorite beverage. If you love coffee, there’s yet another reason to congratulate yourself on have a good habit – at least that’s what the latest study on the associations between diet and Alzheimer’s seem to show. The study was released at the end of November and was conducted at the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

coffee-sketch-1 Millions of people worldwide have Alzheimer’s Disease and their families and friends all experience the trauma and difficulties associated with the advanced progression of the disease. While dementia is thought to be a normal part of aging, it is by no means an eventuality. Many people live well into old age and maintain the vast majority of their mental capacity. The possibility of being able to avoid dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease is very enticing and people are quick to adopt the advice of scientists working to find the sources as well as a cure for Alzheimer’s.

It seems like coffee is the latest everyday product that has been tested against the disease, and the results are a tentative boon. It could be that drinking coffee daily will help people to stay alert into old age, and not just for the basic reasons of caffeine’s role as a stimulant. Caffeine may be a way to reduce or slow the processes that lead to loss of memory and mental capacity. When more studies are undertaken, we’ll get a more complete picture of the possibilities. For now, we’ve got the first blanket statement about the relationship between Alzheimer’s and coffee and it looks pretty good for people who do enjoy their coffee breaks.

The Science

The study itself focused on the way that Alzheimer’s Disease demonstrates in the brain. Amyloid plaques and neurofibrulary tangles occur in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients and are considered to be distinctive markers of the disease. Caffeine seems to be preventative in that it keeps both neurofibrulary tangles and amyloid plaques from forming. Caffeine is also effective at slowing the deterioration of brain cells and reducing inflammation in areas where memory is thought to be housed, the cortex and hippocampus.

While the study seems to be very good news for coffee lovers, there’s still more research that needs to be done. Vice chairman of Alzheimer Europe Dr. Iva Holmerova said that age-related mental changes seem to be effected by caffeine, diet, and lifestyle, but others warn that the conclusions made by this study are just the beginning of the story. Research Officer Jess Smith at the Alzheimer’s Society was quick to point out that more studies are required to conclusively say that caffeine is in fact a direct cause of the positive outcomes.

How Convincing is the Study?

coffee-sign-1 For some, the funders and location of the study are a red flag. The Institute for Scientific Information on Coffee released the report and as the name suggests, they’re looking at very specific sources for their findings. As a preliminary study, it seems to hold up to scientific scrutiny, but it’s certainly not the end of the story. But the good news is that the effect seems to be significant, especially during the preclinical phase of Alzheimer’s. The study concluded that three cups of coffee per day could reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s Disease by as much as 20%.

Even if the results are not duplicated exactly, 20% is a pretty hefty margin. A fraction of that would still make the drinking of coffee beneficial for those at risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

A Complete Picture

Maybe coffee is better for us than we’ve realized, but it’s not everything. Dr. Holmerova stressed that “moderate, lifelong consumption may have a beneficial effect on the development of Alzheimer’s Disease” and one of the key words is “moderate”. Jess Smith pointed out that it’s also a good idea to get frequent exercise along with other healthy living habits such as “eating a healthy balanced diet, avoiding smoking, not drinking in excess, and managing other health conditions.” All of these factors play a role in the development of dementia and should be considered alongside caffeine and coffee consumption.

In addition, it’s possible that despite a healthy lifestyle some people will still develop Alzheimer’s due to other causes. Alzheimer’s is better understood than it was even two decades ago, but it’s still not completely clear why some patients develop the disease and others don’t.

For now, it’s fair enough to say that you shouldn’t guilt trip yourself about enjoying your morning coffee. It’s clear that more research needs to be done, but getting stressed out or anxious about consuming coffee, even on a daily basis, is simply not worthwhile. It could be that you’re doing your brain a favor in the long term.

image credits: coffee sketch by josh tabti / CC 2.0; coffee sign by Roberlan Borges / CC 2.0