For those of us who need a jolt of Joe to get the day started, who might sneak in a cup or two in the afternoon and have even been known to brew some dark roast late in the evening, it may be time to shed some of the guilt. Coffee could have a big upside.
A Stanford University School of Medicine study in Nature Medicine is the latest to perk up the worried coffee drinker. It reported that caffeine consumption counters the chronic inflammation responsible for more than 90 percent of many cardiovascular and other age-related diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s and other dementias.
Put more simply, coffee can slow down a widespread cause of human aging.
Coffee and Inflammation
It’s been known that coffee drinkers live longer than abstainers, but it wasn’t altogether clear why.
“What excites me is that we now know that aging, or more specifically age-related diseases, can be avoided or delayed by behavioral means,” says the study’s lead author David Furman. “One mechanism associated with chronic inflammation can be easily inhibited simply by increasing caffeine intake.”
If we can control chronic inflammation, we could have a much longer lifespan and most importantly, health span.
— David Furman, Stanford researcher
Over eight years, Furman, a consulting associate professor at the Stanford Institute of Immunity, Transplantation and Infection, and his team tracked a group of adults age 60 to over 90.
“We’ve identified the triggers of this chronic inflammation and possibly a way to reverse it,” Furman says.
Says Mark Davis, one of the senior authors of the study and director of the Stanford Institute: “I don’t think there’s another study in the world that has gone on as long as ours that has been focused on the immune system, which has thousands of different components.”
Researcher Had a ‘Hunch’
And as often happens in science, he said, the coffee connection came by accident. “We were studying inflammation and aging and David was looking at the data and had a hunch,” says Davis.
Furman said “a survey we conducted included estimates of caffeine intake” and he found something “quite novel:” a correlation between caffeine use and decreases in so-called “inflammasome gene expression,” the mechanism that triggers inflammation and leads to age-related disease. The researchers discovered that those who drank more caffeinated beverages had low levels of inflammatory factors in their blood.
They compared subjects who had inflammatory gene clusters and those whose gene clusters weren’t highly activated. Those in the latter group were eight times as likely as those in the group with active gene clusters to have at least one family member who lived to age 90. Beyond that, those in the active group who were older than 85 in 2008 were “substantially more likely to have died by 2016” than the low group.
Longer Life, Better Health
“If we can control chronic inflammation, we could have a much longer lifespan and most importantly, health span,” Furman says. “Caffeine can block the effect of molecules that cause inflammation, so it may have a protective function on aging and the development of chronic illnesses.” Furman and his team plan to follow up on further studies looking at the immune systems of 1,000 people and addressing the link between caffeine, chronic inflammation and cardiovascular disease.
Dr. Albert Shaw, associate professor of medicine at the Yale School of Medicine, says while the results of this study “show correlation between caffeine intake and decreases in inflammation — not causation — this is a well-done study by an outstanding group of investigators. It addresses an important question in aging research — the basis for increased levels of inflammation found in older adults — and provides new insights for further study.”
Should You Drink More?
Furman says he is a coffee drinker who enjoys a “double espresso in the morning and after lunch.” But based on this study, does he recommend coffee for people who don’t drink it or more coffee for those who do?
“In healthy subjects, increasing caffeine intake may be beneficial. But one has to be cautious, especially in people with gut problems where caffeine may be more inflammatory than anti-inflammatory,” says Furman.
In other words, check with your physician.
Over the years, various studies have touted coffee’s source of cancer-fighting antioxidants, its ability to rejuvenate the liver, lower the risk of type 2 diabetes and of course, have linked coffee with longevity. The result is no shortage of headlines calling coffee “a fountain of youth,” a phrase Furman won’t yet embrace.
But now that there is new evidence that coffee could slow down the aging process, the morning lines at your neighborhood barista might get longer.
And for those of us who’ve been wracked by guilt for drinking coffee morning, noon and night, we can at least believe the stuff coursing through our veins will not only keep us awake, but possibly add years to our coffee-guzzling lives.