The Paleo NP Podcast #33: Does Coffee Make You Live Longer?
In this episode I take a look at what the research says about coffee and explore how much coffee you should be drinking. I also talk a bit about what this means for individuals (because not EVERYONE needs to drink coffee).
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drinking coffee lowers your risk of death
Back in July there was an article in the New York Times that reported that coffee drinkers may live longer. You may already be familiar with studies that have linked drinking coffee to a lower risk of death, but this article examined a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association which found that drinking coffee is associated with a longer lifespan and a lower rates of all cause mortality (that’s your risk of dying from any cause). The interesting part about this article was that it found specifically that risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer, which are two of the top five causes of death in the US, was lower in coffee drinkers.
This study looked at almost 500,000 men and women. It examined their coffee consumption and whether or not they had genetic variants that affect caffeine metabolism (some people are slower to metabolize coffee than others) and they found that people who drank at least one cup of coffee per day have a 6% lower risk of death than those who drink less than a cup of coffee per day. People who consumed eight or more cups a day had a 14% lower risk of death.
Please, if you don’t already drink eight cups of coffee a day, don’t use this as justification to start doing that in order to lower your risk of death. I know if I drank that much coffee I’d probably never go to sleep and my heart would beat itself right out of my chest, so please use good judgement.
It’s important to note that this was an observational study which means that it doesn’t PROVE that coffee consumption causes a lower risk of death. All it does is show an association between coffee consumption and a longer life. As far as I can tell with this study there wasn’t any adjustment for socioeconomic factors, so you could argue that if you can afford to drink eight cups of coffee a day you might also have more money and better access to healthcare, food, and other services that contribute to a longer lifespan. So we can’t say that coffee is the only factor, but this study does show that there’s an association between drinking coffee and lower risk of death.
In 2017, there was another study that looked at a group of people in Hawaii and LA and reported a link between daily coffee intake and a reduced risk from death from all causes (this includes heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, kidney disease, and respiratory disease).
This study found that people who drank one cup of coffee per day have a 12% lower risk of death and people who drink three cups a day have an 18% lower risk of death. This study was particularly interesting because they found that the results were the same whether it was caffeinated or decaf coffee, which means that the caffeine itself is what provides the benefits. Coffee has tons of polyphenols and antioxidants and it appears that those are largely responsible for many of these reductions in mortality.
A study done in 2014 which was a meta-analysis of 20 other previously published studies on coffee also found that coffee consumption is associated with a decrease in overall risk of mortality. So, based on the research, it appears that drinking coffee leads to a longer life.
In terms of cardiovascular health, one meta-analysis of 36 studies found that there was a strong positive association between coffee consumption and decreased risk of cardiovascular disease. The lowest risk was in people who drank three to five cups per day. And heavy coffee consumption does not correlate with an elevated risk of cardiovascular disease, even though you’d think that people who drink a lot of coffee would be having pretty significant heart palpitations and be incredibly jittery.
Coffee consumption has also been associated with a lower risk of stroke. People who drink at least one cup a day have a 20% lower risk of stroke than people you rarely or irregularly drink coffee. It’s also linked to a higher HDL and lower LDL. I realize that lower LDL is not something that directly correlates to cardiovascular disease, but it does play a role. There’s also a reduced risk of metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes with regular coffee consumption.
As I mentioned before, coffee has a lot of polyphenols in it which act as antioxidants. Coffee has also been shown to decrease inflammation, so because a lot of cardiovascular disease and chronic illnesses are a result of inflammation and oxidative damage, that is likely one of the reasons that coffee has an impact on cardiovascular disease.
Not Everyone Who Drinks Coffee Lives longer
Even though all of this seems positive and like you should make sure you are drinking your one to five cups of coffee every day, I do want to highlight a few things about scientific studies in general that are important to consider here. With all of these studies, even though the conclusion was that coffee consumption correlated with a lower risk of mortality, there were people in all of these studies who drank coffee and actually had a higher risk of death. Some had no change to their risk of death, and then a majority of people had a lower risk of death. But you can’t make the claim that everyone who drinks coffee has a lower risk of death unfortunately. This is what happens when you deal with averages.
As a healthcare provider, I treat individuals not averages. But that’s not to say that averages don’t matter, because they drive a lot of what I do, but we also need to be aware of individual responses to things. So if you don’t like or tolerate coffee, don’t assume that you should still be trying to drink it because it will lower your risk of death. I typically use information like this to justify something that is already happening. For example, if you’re otherwise in good health, you don’t need to quit drinking coffee because it’s actually not bad for you.
As I discussed in my article on this, there are actually a few situations where coffee consumption (or caffeine in general) isn’t really a good idea. Individual responses to caffeine depend on things like genetics, which I mentioned earlier, but also on your hormone status, specifically your adrenals. If you’re stressed, sleep deprived, having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, if you have a huge energy crash in the afternoon, or you’re dealing with a chronic illness, coffee (at least caffeinated coffee) is probably a terrible idea for you.
Your morning cup of coffee doesn’t actually wake you up, it actually just blocks your ability to feel tired. So physiologically, your body may be exhausted and telling you to rest more, but you are blocking that signal with coffee, which in turn depletes you even further. This is also why coffee is great for athletic performance, because it blocks your ability to feel tired, but can cause problems in other areas.
As far as caffeinated coffee goes, about 50% of the population are what we call “slow metabolizers” of coffee. Caffeine metabolism is regulated by the CYP1A2 gene. If you are a slow metabolizer of caffeine, drinking coffee (specifically caffeinated coffee) is associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, impaired fasting glucose, and may not have many of the protective benefits against certain types of cancer that others have.
Caffeine has been shown to be neuroprotective and reduces the risk of Parkinson’s disease in both slow and fast metabolizers and then there are other studies showing that fast metabolizers of caffeine may actually be at a higher risk for bone loss than slow metabolizers.
If you want to know for sure if you are a slow or fast metabolizer of caffeine you can get an at home genetic testing kit and find out for sure. If you don’t want to go that route, you can probably make a fairly educated guess as to where you fall. A lot of people who are slow metabolizers of caffeine, don’t actually like coffee because it makes them feel jittery. These are also the people who drink one cup of coffee and still can’t sleep. That’s not the perfect test, but it can at least give you some clues.
I’d also say that if you’re a slow metabolizer, you should not drink multiple cups of coffee daily. You’d probably be better off with one cup in the morning and then switching to decaf or something else after.
If you, like me, actually just love coffee and you’re concerned about caffeine, I’d encourage you to switch to decaf, because as I talked about when I was talking about specific studies, it doesn’t appear that the caffeine in coffee is solely responsible for its benefits.
If you’re a caffeinated coffee drinker, I don’t recommend switching to decaf cold turkey, you’ll probably end up with a pretty hefty headache. I’d suggest doing it slowly. Even though I don’t think I’m a slow metabolizer of caffeine, I typically drink half caff or decaf coffee. Sometimes I’ll have a cup of fully caffeinated coffee first thing in the morning, but if I drink any more than that during the day its usually decaf. I’d also recommend that anyone who is a regular drinker of regular coffee, take a little caffeine hiatus a couple of times per year. This can mean just switching to decaf coffee or stopping for about a week or so and not drinking any coffee Again, I recommend that you taper off slowly because I’ve done the cold-turkey method and it resulted in a headache that was impossible to get rid of and lasted for a couple of days.
coffee quality matters
The other thing I want to address is coffee quality. While that wasn’t specifically addressed in any of the studies I mentioned, it does matter. A lot of coffee companies sacrifice the potential health benefits of coffee for substandard production practices in the name of money. These substandard processes can destroy a lot of the beneficial compounds found in coffee and also can introduce potentially harmful compounds. So many companies focus on speed, convenience, volume, and cost cutting that they negate any potential benefit from the coffee. Other companies care the most about taste and don’t care about anything else (which still doesn’t mean that they are doing a good job).
You want to make sure that the coffee beans aren’t sprayed with pesticides or other harmful chemicals while they are being grown. Coffee is one of the most heavily sprayed crops and a lot of times companies will buy beans from places that don’t have a lot of environmental regulations and that use a lot of pesticides to increase crop production.
Also, keep in mind that just because you are buying organic doesn’t mean that you are getting a high quality product. First, only about 3% of the coffee you can buy is actually truly organic, and then it’s often substandard beans (again where crop yield was prioritized over quality).
Unfortunately, I don’t have any coffee brands to recommend, I drink one that is roasted by a local roaster in Anchorage, AK, which is not organic, but I like that they have a decaf option that doesn’t use gross solvents (which actually might be worse than the caffeine in some cases), look for Swiss water processed decaf as that doesn’t use any harmful solvents.