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Once and for all, does coffee kill? - (1/2/2018)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro

Jess, 25, came into the pharmacy with her usual cup of cappuccino from the coffee house across the street. She said to the pharmacist, “It seems that one year I read coffee is good for you and the next year coffee is bad for you. What do you think?” The pharmacist agreed with Jess. There have been contradicting studies which have revealed that coffee can help you live longer or make you die sooner. Once and for all, which is it?

A 2013 study found that coffee drinking is linked with a higher risk of death in men and women younger than 55. In the study, published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, men and women in their mid-50s and younger who drank 4 cups of coffee a day had a much greater chance of dying than their counterparts who were not so salaciously besotted with their percolators. But wait. Two large 2017 studies that lasted 16 years concluded that people drinking 2 to 4 cups of coffee were less likely to die from heart disease, stroke, diabetes or cancer. In fact, coffee drinkers were 18% less likely to die during the study period than teetotalers. What, huh? 

Drinking coffee has become a daily routine for most Americans. According to the National Coffee Association, approximately 6 of 10 American adults drink coffee each day, and among coffee drinkers, the average coffee consumption in the US is 3 cups per day. Hence, a Starbucks on every corner. Yet, despite its ubiquitous nature, coffee has long been suspected to contribute to a variety of chronic health conditions. Over the last 4 decades, the association between coffee consumption and chronic health outcomes has been investigated in relation to conditions such as obesity, hypertension, and coronary heart disease. However, studies on coffee consumption in relation to cause-specific mortality are limited, and the results are often controversial. Several studies have found a positive association between higher levels of coffee consumption and death from any cause, while others have found an inverse association with mortality in both men and women, only in women, or only in men. 

One problem with many of these clinical studies is how they are set up. People who drink gallons of coffee tend to have other bad behaviors. Rabid java drinkers tend to not sleep well and that is a health issue. The results of the 2013 study showed that there were more smokers in the group that drank more coffee. We know cigarettes kill. Or perhaps the study subjects were people who have Type A personality traits – aggressiveness, competitiveness, hostility, impatience. To sort out which of the factors is really the culprit is difficult. Maybe it’s the whole combination – a stressed-out lifestyle plus coffee plus cigarettes – that kills. Also, define “a cup of coffee.” Whether it is a heart-stopping triple-shot espresso grande with whipped cream in the shape of a heart or a watered down cup of instant, no 2 cups of coffee are alike. 

Notably, the 2017 studies looked at both decaf and caffeinated coffees, which rules out caffeine as the offender (at least for 2018). More likely, the longevity of the study population came from the fact that coffee contains antioxidants which inhibit cell damage. Whatever it is all about, very few people are going to give up their morning brew, especially that first, fresh, piping hot, aromatic mug. Jess agreed with the pharmacist, coffee is one of the things that makes life worth living. Come what may.  

Ron Gasbarro, PharmD, is a registered pharmacist, medical writer, and principal at Rx-Press.com. Read more at www.rx-press.com

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