If you’re like millions of Americans, your morning cup of coffee is a staple. You might even drink multiple cups a day to keep alert and energized. It’s no secret that America runs on coffee. Some 64% percent of Americans drink coffee every day, consuming an average of 135 milligrams of caffeine per person per day.
Coffee is more than just a morning pick-me-up. Could sipping your morning coffee also lower your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease? According to a new study, drinking at least 2 cups of coffee per day may help stave off the negative effects of aging on the brain.
What a New Study Shows about Coffee and Brain Health
As part of the Australian Imaging, Biomarkers and Lifestyle Study of Aging, researchers from Edith Cowan University investigated whether coffee intake affected cognitive decline among 227 male and female Australians over a decade. The study found that those who consumed more coffee experienced a slower rate of cognitive decline, including attention and executive function, the ability to plan and focus attention. They were also less likely to progress to significant cognitive impairment over a 126-month period.
The researchers also found that subjects who consumed more coffee experienced less accumulation of beta-amyloid proteins in their brain, a type of protein higher in people with Alzheimer’s disease. There was another benefit too. Coffee drinkers had less evidence of brain atrophy. Based on the study, drinking 2 cups of coffee daily could reduce cognitive decline by around 8% while reducing B-amyloid protein build-up in the brain by around 5%.
It’s hard to draw firm conclusions since this study only shows a correlation between coffee consumption and reduced risk of cognitive decline. There could be another factor common among coffee drinkers that explains this association. It could be that coffee drinkers have healthier lifestyles (more exercise, better eating habits) than non-coffee drinkers. Or it could be that coffee drinkers experience less inflammation in the body, which is associated with many chronic diseases.
Still, this isn’t the first study to show that coffee has brain health benefits. You might wonder what component of coffee is responsible for the brain benefits that coffee may offer. Caffeine is an alkaloid compound found in many plant-based foods, including coffee beans, tea leaves, kola nuts, and cocoa. Caffeine is the obvious choice, but the study didn’t differentiate between caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee. So, caffeine may not fully explain these potential benefits.
Coffee is also the biggest source of antioxidants in the American diet, since people on average drink so much of it and eat so few fruits and vegetables. Scientists have identified hundreds of bioactive compounds in coffee, but only a few have been studied in detail. Four of the best characterized include caffeine, chlorogenic acid, diterpenes, and trigonelline. Chlorogenic acid has drawn a lot of attention since it has strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity, which may play a role in its brain health benefits.
It’s unclear whether any of these compounds alone or in combination explain the brain health benefits of drinking coffee. Caffeine appears to have at least short-term benefits on brain function. After drinking it, you feel more alert and motivated. Caffeine works by blocking a neurotransmitter in the brain called adenosine. When caffeine blocks adenosine, it boosts the release of other neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine that boost alertness and brain activity. Another compound in coffee called methylxanthine also increases alertness and reduces fatigue, like caffeine.
Some studies also show that caffeine increases short-term memory, although the results are inconsistent. However, most studies show it increases reaction time. This makes sense, as it increases alertness.
Other Health Benefits of Coffee
Studies also reveal that people who drink coffee have a lower risk of dying from a host of causes, including heart disease, stroke, and liver disease. However, most of these studies are associational, but the consistency of the data adds credibility to the findings. The caffeine in coffee also helps improve sports performance for endurance sports, such as long-distance running, and high-intensity exercise, like sprinting.
It’s less clear whether caffeine improves performance for power or strength training. The amount you need to get benefits is about 3 milligrams of caffeine per kilogram of body weight. So, a 150-pound person could get benefits from consuming 204 milligrams of caffeine, the amount in around 2 cups of brewed coffee.
The Bottom Line
You can get the most health benefits from coffee by choosing organic, shade-grown beans and avoiding added sugar, cream, or syrup. You can also purchase pre-roasted coffee or try roasting your own at home. It’s better for your health than buying a sugary drink from Starbucks.
Gardener SL, Rainey-Smith SR, Villemagne VL, et al. Higher Coffee Consumption Is Associated With Slower Cognitive Decline and Less Cerebral Aβ-Amyloid Accumulation Over 126 Months: Data From the Australian Imaging, Biomarkers, and Lifestyle Study. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience. 2021;13. doi:10.3389/fnagi.2021.744872.
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