JavaJive: The Older You Get, the More that Coffee Helps Your Brain

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Recent research has shown that women older than 65 years old who drink more than three cups of coffee per day were protected from some types of age-related memory declines.

"The more coffee one drank, the better the effects seemed to be on (women's) memory functioning in particular," reported Karen Ritchie, epidemiological and clinical researcher at La Colombiere Hospital and at the French National Institute of Medical Research (INSERM), in Montpellier, France.

To do this research, the researchers studied more than 4,197 women and 2,820 men in three French cities, Bordeaux, Dijon and Montpellier, analyzing the subjects' health and mental function. They asked them about their current and past eating and drinking habits, their friends, and their daily activities. Additionally, the subjects were asked to perform math problems, copy drawings and repeat lists of words.

As a result of this study, the team found that women who drank more than three cups of coffee per day (or in its caffeine equivalent in tea), retained more of their verbal memories and even their visual memories over a period of four years. But unfortunately, women who drank fewer than two cups of coffee daily received "no significant protective effect at all," the researchers noted.

Further, the coffee-drinking women had a 33 percent lower chance of experiencing declines in their verbal memory and an 18 percent lower chance of having visual and spatial memory declines, compared to those unfortunate women who drank one cup of coffee or fewer per day.

"While we have some ideas as to how this works biologically, we need to have a better understanding of how caffeine affects the brain before we can start promoting caffeine intake as a way to reduce cognitive decline," Ritchie said.

This positive memory effect depended on age: women over age 80 enjoyed greater benefits than those who were 10 to 15 years younger, according to Ritchie's team. It was unclear whether current or former coffee consumption made the difference.

"The further women are from the menopause, the more it appears to protect."

Interestingly, men did not enjoy the same benefit from coffee.

"Our best guess is that women don't metabolize coffee in the same way (as men)," Ritchie said.

Interestingly, the occurrence of dementia was also recorded in this study, although coffee was not associated with any protection from dementia.

"We really need a longer study to look at whether caffeine prevents dementia; it might be that caffeine could slow the dementia process rather than preventing it," observed Ritchie.

"Further studies are required to ascertain whether caffeine may nonetheless be of potential use in prolonging the period of mild cognitive impairment in women prior to a diagnosis of dementia," concluded the researchers.

Interestingly, an earlier study showed that tobacco use may also delay signs of cognitive decline while not preventing diseases such as Alzheimer's. Of course, tobacco does cause lung cancer and emphysema and other unpleasant effects, most of which are likely to kill you (or at least to make you wish you were dead), so coffee seems to be the drug of choice these days.

"But the results are interesting -- caffeine use is already widespread and it has fewer side effects than other treatments for cognitive decline, and it requires a relatively small amount for a beneficial effect," added Ritchie.

Coffee is one of the world's largest traded commodities and is produced in more than 60 countries, generating more than $70bn in retail sales a year. The US average coffee consumption is more than three and a half cup daily, however, the average worldwide daily coffee consumption is only one and a half cups. Coffee consumption has been linked to reduced risks of certain diseases, especially of the liver and diabetes.

This research was published in the journal Neurology.


"The neuroprotective effects of caffeine -- A prospective population study (the Three City Study)" by K. Ritchie, I. Carriere, A. de Mendona, F. Portet, J.F. Dartigues, O. Rouaud, P. Barberger-Gateau, and M. L. Ancelin. Neurology 69:536-545 (7 August 2007) [Abstract or PDF].

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Wonder if chocolate covered coffee beans have the same results.

By parrotslave (not verified) on 07 Aug 2007 #permalink

Woohoo seconded!!!

Bring on the caffeine! I need all I can get!

By the way, before the advent of more modern antihistamines (the days when I only had the choice between Drixoral or Benadryl, not the Allegra I use now)... I found that coffee helped with my allergies.

Coffee here in France, at least in restaurants and cafés, is usually espresso (or related, such as lattes, cappuccini. and so on). Does that matter?

As I understand it, there is a fairly high concentration of caffeine and dissolved solids in espresso, albeit the small serving size (c.30ml?) may mitigate that. And, to the best of my knowledge, espresso, especially here in France, is always made from 100% Arabica (never Robusta) coffee beans.

I've no idea if any of that makes any difference, but given this was in France, I'd be hesitant (careful) about the translation of "three cups" (at least).

(These points may be discussed in the study, which I have not read.)

A story from The Guardian today, Just say no to espresso: teenager in hospital after overdose of coffee:

It is an all too familiar modern morality tale: teenager goes too far and gets rushed to hospital suffering from an overdose. But in the case of 17-year-old waitress Jasmine Willis, the hyper-ventilation, uncontrolled sobbing and rocketing temperature that she suffered behind the counter of her dad's sandwich shop had a more mundane cause. She'd guzzled too much espresso coffee.
Jasmine drank seven double-espressos during the course of her shift at the shop in Stanley, Co Durham. Customers noticed the difference. ...

(Jasmine is Ok, except at the moment is none too keen on coffee anymore.)

Over at Advances in the History of Psychology, we decided to use this story to point out a parallel in the discipline's history: Harry Hollingworth's study of caffeine for Coca-Cola in 1911. This time, however, caffeine is good for you. (See the posting here.)

Re. the teenager making herself ill with coffee, the old adage that "the dose maketh the poison" comes to mind here.

For those interested, info on the caffeine content of various different caffeinated drinks, including coffee brewed different ways, can be found here:

From these numbers one would estimate Jasmine (the girl in the recent UK news story) had probably taken about a gramme (1 g) of caffeine over the course of her shift. This is not a huge dose by any means, although if she was on the small side that wouldn't help. However, I think it is a significant possibility that some of the reported effects in her case include an element of "panic response" once she began to feel a bit funny. Adult fatalities from dosing yourself with caffeine would usually mean taking at least 10 g (around ten times as much as she probably took) - last time I looked the lowest reported "fatal caffeine overdose" dose in an adult was 6-7 grammes.

Caffeine intoxication (as the doctors would say) is not THAT
uncommon, but it is almost never due to coffee drinking. It typically arises when some idiot has taken a whole tube of ProPlus (UK) or NoDoze (US) caffeine tablets. Far easier to take enough caffeine to make you ill as pills (e.g. ten 200 mg tablets, sold over the net by some idiot online vitamin stores, would gets you 2 g of caffeine) than from ODing on Mocha Java. The caffeine effects might also be enhanced if you were taking other stuff at the same time (booze, other stimulants, some prescription drugs etc etc).

Among regular "several a day" coffee users, surveys say daily intake is supposed to average about 300 mg, although if you drink several cups a day of filter coffee and/or Starbucks grande Americanos (or equivalent) I would think you could easily exceed 1 g a day. Of course, habitual coffee drinkers almost certainly develop tolerance to the physiological and psychological effects of caffeine.

One scientific problem in ALL the "coffee is good / bad for you" stories is whether the effects are due to caffeine (and other methylxanthines) or to other components in the coffee (e.g. things with antioxidant actions). Extracting beans with hot water gives a complex mixture, to say the least. And there is also the interesting idea that how you make the coffee almost certainly changes the exact broth of coffee chemicals that you get out.

Expresso is often regarded as "strong", largely because of the strong flavour and bitter taste, but a single shot doesn't contain that much caffeine (75 mg). If you filter-brewed the same amount of actual ground coffee you would probably get more caffeine. However, I suspect the expresso process (forcing steam rapidly through the ground stuff) could well get more "oily" components out of the coffee than (e.g.) drip filtering. So filter coffee is relatively high in caffeine but could be lower in other things compared to expresso. This sort of thing may be one reason why the results in all the coffee studies tend to be so varied.

Scientific take-home: if you like coffee, carry on drinking sensibly. To help stave off dementia in your "mature years", go for a brisk daily walk and then have a cup of coffee while doing the cryptic crossword - all sounds pieces of "evidence based" advice.

Shame.. it didn't seem to help men in the study.
I have to share with you.. Playing a few brain games in the morning perks my brain up almost as much as a cup of coffee! Now quite, but close.