Coffee drinkers are at no greater risk of dying of cancer, heart attacks, or strokes than their non-coffee-drinking peers, and they may even be less likely to die of certain conditions, according to a new study.
The findings are from nearly 130,000 middle-aged men and women enrolled in the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study. Researchers asked the men and women, most of them nurses, dentists, veterinarians, and other health professionals, about their coffee-drinking habits in the 1980s, and then had them fill out questionnaires every two to four years. The study ended in 2004.
During that time, about 7,000 men and 11,000 women died of cancer or cardiovascular disease. Esther Lopez-Garcia, PhD, of the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid in Spain, and colleagues from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard University in Boston, found that coffee drinkers had the same risk of dying of cancer as those who consumed less than one cup a month.
Compared with non-coffee drinkers, women had a 7% lower risk of dying of other causes (mostly cardiovascular disease) if they drank five to seven cups a week; 18% lower if they drank two to three cups a day; 26% lower if they drank four to five cups a day; and 17% lower if they drank six or more a day. Men also seemed to have lower risk, but the results did not reach statistical significance for any of the coffee consumption categories.
Although a cup of joe is most famous for its caffeine content, the researchers don’t think java’s jolt is responsible for the difference. They found that heavy consumption of decaf was also associated with a slightly lower risk of cardiovascular mortality, especially in women.
Unfortunately it’s impossible to say with 100% certainty that coffee is responsible for the mortality difference. Coffee drinkers (who don’t smoke) may have healthier lifestyles in general than non-coffee drinkers, which would explain the lower mortality risk. Or it’s possible that people who are sick are less likely to consume the beverage than the well (though the researchers took into account high cholesterol, blood pressure, diabetes, and other factors).
In any case, Lopez-Garcia says there are some reasons to think that coffee quaffing could be a boon to health. Certain compounds found in coffee, including chlorogenic acid, ferulic acid, and p-coumaric acid “have a strong antioxidant capacity,” says Lopez-Garcia. Such compounds may improve vascular health and reduce inflammatory molecules, she says.
“In addition, magnesium, trigonelline, and quinides in coffee have been associated with improved insulin sensitivity, which reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes, one of the main risk factors for cardiovascular disease,” she says.
Still, if you don’t currently consume coffee, don’t rush out to Starbucks just yet. Lopez-Garcia says she wouldn’t change her own behavior based on the findings. “Our results are not enough to recommend that people consume coffee” for health reasons alone.
And she says the study findings only apply to people who are already healthy, since people with cancer and cardiovascular disease were excluded from the study. “Anyone with health problems that can be worsened by coffee (insomnia, anxiety, hypertension, or heart problems) should ask the doctor about the specific risk,” she says.
Drinking coffee also won’t counteract the negative effects of smoking. Coffee drinkers in the study actually had a greater risk of dying during the study period, until the researchers adjusted the results to correct for smoking behavior (the two habits were strongly linked).
(PHOTO: MAX POWER/CORBIS)