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Ask Sid

The Coffee Brew-haha

Most studies find drinking coffee brings health benefits, but old myths persist.

the coffee brew

— Bloomimage/Corbis

“Whether you drink regular or decaf coffee, you’re getting chlorogenic acids,” notes Frank Hu, M.D., professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard’s School of Public Health, who led that January 2004 diabetes study published in Annals of Internal Medicine and participated in the recent February report indicating a lower risk of stroke among coffee drinkers. “These substances have a powerful, positive effect on cardiovascular health and in preventing gallstones, which, similarly to diabetes, is related to insulin resistance.”

Antioxidants in coffee may also play a role in reducing the risk of certain cancers. “There really seems to be a strong, consistent protective effect against liver and endometrial cancer, with the benefit coming with at least two cups per day,” says Lenore Arab, a researcher at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine who analyzed more than 500 previous coffee studies for a study soon to be published in Nutrition & Cancer. “There is increasing evidence that coffee is protective against colorectal cancer.” Her research indicates that coffee has little impact—positive or negative—on cancers of the breast, pancreas, kidney, ovaries, prostate or stomach. And in one of the first studies of its kind, a recent study from Japan finds lower rates of oral cancers among coffee drinkers.

However, more than six cups a day is linked with a higher risk of bladder cancer in men, but not women, adds Arab. And higher rates of leukemia occur in people whose mothers drank more than two cups a day during pregnancy.

What about bone loss leading to osteoporosis, a common concern from drinking coffee? “There is very little risk in drinking up to four cups per day,” Coughlin says.

Even many patients with heart arrhythmias—long told to avoid coffee—can drink it with their doctor’s approval. In fact, mounting evidence suggests that coffee may be heart-healthy. A study last year that tracked nearly 128,000 adults for 18 year or longer indicated that, all else considered, coffee drinkers have a longer lifespan than nondrinkers. Why might that java habit help people live longer? Coffee is rich in magnesium—important for heart health—and its bounty of antioxidants helps reduce inflammation and protect the inner lining of blood vessels, says lead researcher Esther Lopez-Garcia of the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid in Spain.

The bottom line: “For most people in their 50s, 60s or older,” says Harvard’s Hu, “there is no reason to worry about coffee. Just don’t add too much sugar or cream.”


Sid Kirchheimer writes about consumer affairs and health issues.

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