Guest contributor: Alida Lacobellis, Dietetic Intern and MHSc Candidate
Coffee. Some say it’s black gold; the elixir of life. It has definitely come under fire in the media a few times before. One day journalists are singing its praises and health benefits, and the next thing you know it’s being portrayed at a dietary evil.
While I love the smell and enjoy the taste, I’m not a regular coffee-drinker. Somehow, I’ve managed to get through my first 25 years on the planet in a less-caffeinated state than the average person. I don’t avoid coffee for any health-related reasons. Some people find coffee tough on their gut, and unfortunately, I’m one of them.
Despite the confusion that can be created and perpetuated by the media, what the science really says is that responsible coffee consumption can lower your risk of getting cancer and even boost your mood. Research also shows that consuming three to five cups a day is associated with a significant decrease in the risk of developing certain chronic diseases.
But what about aging, can it help us out with the cognitive and physical declines that come along with each passing year? Research suggests that maybe it can, although the compound in coffee that may be responsible for these health benefits may surprise you.
What’s in Coffee that Makes It Good for Us?
Caffeine is usually one of the main reasons we love waking up to a big mug of coffee every morning. But it’s likely not just the caffeine in coffee that makes it good for us. Coffee contains phytochemicals, polyphenols, and other bioactive compounds that have been shown to improve human health through their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. These helpful phytochemicals aren’t just found in coffee. Many are also found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, teas, legumes, and even wine. Like all plant-based foods and beverages, coffee is chemically complex, consisting of more than 1,000 different compounds. Pyroglutamate is just one of these compounds – an amino acid found in coffee known for its cognitive enhancing qualities.
Coffee and Aging
In a study conducted in aged rats, researchers found that those who had coffee added to their diets performed better in psychomotor testing and memory testing compared to aged rats fed a diet without coffee. In the second part of this study, researchers took things a step further and tried to isolate the effects of caffeine alone from the effects of coffee as a whole on psychomotor and cognitive functioning. This is where all those bioactive, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant rich compounds in coffee come in. They wanted to see if it was the caffeine in coffee that was having these positive effects, or if it was some other compound in coffee. They found that rats who had caffeine alone added to their diet did not see the same performance improvements. What does this all mean? These results show the neuroprotective benefits of coffee are likely not due to caffeine alone. Instead, the other hundreds of bioactive compounds in coffee may have a larger role to play in the preservation of physical and cognitive functioning as we age.
Interestingly, similar results have been found in studies using dietary interventions involving berries, nuts, and other fruits and vegetables with similar bioactive anti-inflammatory and antioxidant rich compounds. So not to worry if coffee isn’t your cup of tea. Lots of variety of berries, nuts, fruits and veggies in your diet might have the same effect.
What About Decaf?
Considering this news that the health benefits of coffee aren’t coming from the caffeine alone, you might be asking yourself if decaf is the best way to go. Maybe. However, it is possible that some of the beneficial bioactive compounds in coffee could also be lost or diminished through the decaffeination process. Another possibility is that the caffeine works in some sort of synergistic way alongside the other bioactive compounds to produce the health effects seen in this study. We just don’t know for sure at this point in time.
How Much Coffee is Healthy?
So, if you’re sticking with your regular brew, the question remains, how much should I be drinking for optimal health benefits? Dietitians of Canada recommends no more than 3 cups (or about 24 oz or three, 8 oz cups) of regular coffee for adults per day. This is to keep caffeine intake below 400mg per day. The recommended maximum caffeine intake for children, adolescents, and pregnant and breastfeeding women is less. The good news is that when we account for the differences in metabolism between rats and humans, the amount of coffee fed to the rats in the study who saw cognitive and psychomotor improvements works out to a human equivalent of 1-3 cups of coffee per day. Right in line with safety recommendations.
The Effects of Coffee on Psychomotor and Cognitive Function
In the research study mentioned above, aged rats who were fed diets with and without coffee were tested on their coordination, balance, muscular strength and tone, as well as stamina. Results showed that rats fed the human equivalent of 3 cups of coffee per day preformed significantly better with their fine motor coordination and balance compared to the rats that weren’t fed any coffee. When it comes to cognitive function, the study results indicated that coffee improved spatial working memory. Rats fed the human equivalent of 0.8 cups of coffee saw an improvement in long-term memory, whereas those fed the human equivalent of 2-3 cups saw improvement in short-term memory.
The Bottom Line
There are a few differences between rat brains and human brains! And also, likely some differences in the human aging process and the rat aging process! That being said, the results of this study are a good place to start and provide us with some ideas for future research, so we can better understand the potential benefits of coffee.
Coffee in easy-to-consume and safe amounts may reduce both motor and cognitive age-related declines. The neuroprotective benefits of coffee are seen separate from the effects of caffeine alone, suggesting that the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties of coffee may have more of a role to play.
Shukitt-Hale B, Miller MG, Chu Y-F, Lyle BJ, Joseph JA. Coffee, but not caffeine, has positive effects on cognition and psychomotor behavior in aging. AGE. 2013 Dec;35(6):2183–92.