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Coffee Linked to Lower Risk of Early Death

Study finds daily consumption of java, including cups slightly sweetened with sugar, may be beneficial

cup of coffee
Erik Von Weber / Getty Images

Compared with those who don’t drink coffee, adults who claim to consume a few cups of joe a day — either unsweetened or sweetened with a spoonful of sugar — were found to be less likely to die during a seven-year follow-up period, according to a study appearing in Annals of Internal Medicine.

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The study involved 171,616 adults in the United Kingdom who completed a survey about their coffee habits. Among them, 76 percent were coffee drinkers, and most consumed it unsweetened. About 14 percent of all participants sweetened their coffee by adding, on average, just over a teaspoon of sugar. Another 6 percent used artificial sweeteners. And about 24 percent of those who did not drink coffee were tea drinkers, according to the study. Participants were tracked an average of seven years, during which time 3,177, or 1.85 percent, died.

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“Our study found that adults who drank moderate amounts of coffee sweetened with sugar every day were about 30 percent less likely to die from any cause during the average seven-year follow-up period, compared to non-coffee drinkers,” study coauthor Dan Liu, M.D., a researcher at Southern Medical University in Guangzhou, China, said in a video release.

What they found

On average, study participants were nearly 56 years old when they were recruited, between 2006 and 2010. In their analysis, researchers accounted for factors that may otherwise influence their risk of death, including diet, smoking, socioeconomic status, preexisting health problems and exposure to air pollution. The study found the following:​

  • Participants who drank any amount of unsweetened coffee were 16 to 21 percent less likely to die than subjects who did not drink coffee.
  • Those who drank 1.5 to 3.5 daily cups of coffee sweetened with sugar were 29 to 31 percent less likely to die than participants who did not drink coffee. ​
  • The benefit was found regardless of brewing method or whether the coffee was caffeinated or decaffeinated.​
  • The association, however, was not established for coffee taken with an artificial sweetener.
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Previous studies have also found that coffee consumption is associated with a lower risk of death, but earlier research did not distinguish between unsweetened coffee and coffee consumed with sugar or artificial sweeteners. The current study did not consider the effects of adding milk, cream or a nondairy product.

A cautionary note

In an editorial accompanying the study, Christina Wee, M.D., an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and deputy editor of the journal, cautioned against Americans reading too much into the study results. 

“Unfortunately, Liu and colleagues’ study does not quite get at what we really want to know. Is drinking coffee laden with sugar and calories still potentially beneficial, or at least not harmful?” she wrote.

Wee notes that the coffee habits of Americans may not mesh with those taken from surveys a decade ago in the United Kingdom. In particular, she points out that “an 8-ounce cup of caramel macchiato at a popular U.S. coffee chain” contains roughly four times as much sugar as the spoonful added to the average cup in the U.K.

“Although we cannot definitively conclude that drinking coffee reduces mortality risk, the totality of the evidence does not suggest a need for most coffee drinkers — particularly those who drink it with no or modest amounts of sugar — to eliminate coffee. So drink up — but it would be prudent to avoid too many caramel macchiatos while more evidence brews,” she wrote.

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