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The Eternal Question – Coffee, Is it Good for You?

Believed to have been introduced to the world at some point in the 15th century CE after knowledge of the coffee tree was developed in Yemen, Coffee today is a major aspect of everyday life all around the world.  Many of us cannot get out of the house in the morning without reaching for the percolator, and the rush of customers to the local Starbucks just before offices open is a clear indication of the value of the substance.

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Let’s face it, without the glorious caffeinated sludge that we all know and love, productivity levels in every business around the world would suddenly slump, and there is a strong likelihood that an economic catastrophe would follow. Think we’re joking? Think again. There is a strong case that the establishment of coffee houses in continental Europe during the 17th century was a primary contributor to the emergence of the Enlightenment, and without the Enlightenment there would be no Scientific Revolution and no Industrial Revolution.

Coffee is such a major part of life in societies and cultures around the world, and consumed in such great quantities (and has been for hundreds of years) that for as long as we’ve been drinking it, we’ve wanted to know whether it is safe for us to do so.

One of the earliest recorded European references in respect to coffee comes from German Physician Leonhard Rauwolf in 1583:

A beverage as black as ink, useful against numerous illnesses, particularly those of the stomach.”

Now, before we go running for that next cup of espresso we should realize that back when tobacco was first discovered, that too was being hailed as the next great panacea. In today’s world however, we know well enough that smoking kills.

So is the same true of coffee? Have we been poisoning ourselves for centuries by consuming the drink? Or may there actually be some benefits to one of the few globally accepted vices (unless you’re a Mormon, obviously)?

Coffee, Memory and Diabetes

A report from February 2012 discussed a study in which scientists gave dietary supplements that had the same effect and chemical makeup as decaffeinated coffee to mice suffering from Type-2 Diabetes which causes impairments in memory and cognitive functions. After months on the supplement the mice which had been given the coffee substitute, as opposed to the placebo, demonstrated an increase in memory functions. In the diabetic mice, the reason for their mental impairment was due to the lowered levels of glucose in their brains, but by receiving the decaffeinated coffee supplement, the glucose levels in the brains of the mice significantly increased.

In fact, there have been approximately 15 studies conducted on the link between coffee intake and diabetes prevention, and scientists now believe that both caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee will have a similar positive effect on the disease.

Simply put, if you drink more than 6 or 7 cups of coffee each day then you are up to 35% less likely to develop diabetes. Drinking between 4-6 cups per day saw a 28% lower risk of developing the disease, regardless of Age, Sex, or Location.

And if you’re worried about sleeping then the good news is that it doesn’t matter if you’re drinking caffeinated or decaffeinated, studies are supporting the case that caffeine probably isn’t the major factor in this result. But if coffee is having a positive effect on the brains of diabetic mice, and is helping to improve their cognitive functions, then it would be good to know if studies have been done on other degenerative brain conditions in relation to the drink.

Coffee and Alzheimer’s Disease

According to recent studies, drinking 3 cups of coffee per day will delay the onset of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Unlike in the Diabetes case, the coffee and Alzheimer’s link does depend on caffeine. One study in particular indicated that individuals aged 65 or older who had high caffeine levels in their blood developed Alzheimer’s disease 2 to 4 years later than individuals with lower blood-caffeine levels. For the study, which was published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, coffee was the only source of caffeine for the participants.

Why does this happen? Scientists believe that a protein called Beta-Amyloid accumulates in the brain of Alzheimer’s Sufferers as they enter old age. Although we are born with this protein, and Beta-Amyloid doesn’t actually directly cause Alzheimer’s, an individual’s inability to metabolize the protein does contribute to Alzheimer’s development.

Caffeine stops the production of Beta-Amyloid inside your brain so that your body metabolizes all of the protein in the body and you don’t produce any more of the protein than you can actually metabolize, stalling the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

In the words of Chuanhai Cao, PhD, neuroscientist at the University of South Florida’s College of Pharmacy and Byrd Alzheimer’s Institute in Tampa: “continue to drink coffee.”

Coffee and Parkinson’s Disease

Continuing on with another detrimental illness is the link between Coffee and Parkinson’s disease. According to a study published on August 1st 2012 in the American Academy of Neurology Coffee may have a benefit in controlling movement in people suffering from Parkinson’s Disease.

Parkinson’s is a degenerative disorder which causes muscle tremors and shaking, difficulty in movement and overall poor coordination. A famous Parkinson’s sufferer is Michael J. Fox, whom is an unusual Parkinson’s patient considering the disease usually only strikes individuals older than 50.

The study on the relationship between coffee and Parkinson’s disease is actually bittersweet. People who use caffeine less are less likely to develop Parkinson’s disease at all, but for individuals who have already begun to display the onset of Parkinson’s the caffeine in Coffee can help to relieve the movement symptoms associated with the illness.

The findings show that Caffeine may block a malfunctioning brain signal which causes Parkinson’s sufferers to display their typical tremors. While the researchers were quick to point out that Coffee and Caffeine should not be an entire course of treatment for Parkinson’s disease, the effect of the drink should be taken into consideration when the patient is discussing their treatment options with their neurologist.

Coffee and Strokes (in Women)

According to a 2012 study in the Journal of the American Heart Association, women who drink at least 1 cup of coffee per day had a 25 percent lower risk of having a stroke than women who drank no coffee on a daily basis.

Another study conducted in Sweden concluded that all individuals who drank between 3 to 4 cups of coffee per day lowered their risk of having a stroke by up to 17 percent.

However, the correlation between Strokes and Coffee intake are not that well known, and there seems to be a large amount of contradictory information. Researchers have been very quick to point out that none of the studies conducted so far definitively prove that drinking coffee prevents strokes. However, they did note that there was no increased risk of an individual suffering a stroke because they drank coffee.

Coffee Lowers Risk of Heart Failure

Yet another study has shown that moderate coffee consumption can lower a person’s risk of heart failure with age. Moderate consumption in this case means about 2 cups of coffee per day, but researchers found that individuals who drank an average of 2 cups per day decreased their likelihood of heart failure by up to 11 percent over individuals who drank no coffee at all.

That result held true for both men and women.

However, increasing the intake of coffee above an average 2 cups per day did not improve the lowered risk of heart failure, and that drinking 5 to 6 cups of coffee per day may actually increase the risk of heart problems rather than decrease them.

Coffee, an Antioxidant Superpower

So, what is the general trend with all these positive health aspects of Coffee? Well, it seems that this magical bean is, in fact, one of the world’s best antioxidants.

According to a 2005 study Americans get more of their daily dose of antioxidants from Coffee than any other substance. Coffee beat more than 100 different foods including Vegetables, Nuts, Spices, Oils and Fruits in a study on Antioxidant properties. The drink easily outranked Chocolate, Tea, Milk, and Cranberries in terms of the antioxidant properties on offer. The only food on the planet with more antioxidants is dates, but as dates are not consumed in anywhere near the same quantity as Coffee, it was determined that everyone’s favorite morning beverage was the clear winner in terms of easy access to large amounts of antioxidants.

For many scientists, it is these antioxidants which are the primary factor in the ability of the drink to provide the myriad of positive health benefits which are continuously being discovered.  For example, Coffee contains the compound Methylpridinium, an anticarcenogenic which is not commonly found in most other foods. In fact, Methylpridinium isn’t actually found in the raw coffee bean, but is formed during the roasting process and is present in both caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee. Methylpridinium is currently being studied by scientists to determine its effects on a number of concerning illnesses including Colon Cancer.

But this is just one of the many compounds found in Coffee, and research has shown that the drink contains a host of others, including lipophilic antioxidants and chlorogenic acid lactones. Plus, coffee can even protect against hydrogen-peroxide induced cell death. Always a bonus.

As researchers continue to unlock the mysteries of this, otherwise unexceptional bean we can expect more good news to vindicate our daily wake up routine. So next time you reach for your coffee mug, you can smugly look to your tea-drinking coworker secure in the knowledge that your caffeine injection will actually be contributing to your long term health – as long as you keep your habit to 6 cups per day or less!

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