The Surprising Ways Drinking Coffee Promotes Longevity
Coffee, one of the most commonly consumed beverages worldwide, is a leading dietary source of antioxidants. It provides people all over the globe with a variety of health-promoting compounds through their daily cup (or three) of Joe. Coffee is also the main provider of the psychoactive drug we know as caffeine.
In this article, we’ll explore how drinking coffee can contribute to increased longevity, through improvements in cellular markers of aging and reductions in mortality, as well as a few downsides of coffee consumption to be aware of.
Coffee: The Nutrition Science
The wide variety of bioactive and phenolic compounds that are found in coffee contribute to its health benefits. These compounds act as antioxidants that scavenge the body for free radicals and reduce oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is a leading cause of DNA damage, which accelerates aging and contributes to disease development and progression.
Although the number of antioxidants can vary by roasting and brewing method, most coffee contains molecules called melanoidins and diterpenes and a group of phenolic compounds called chlorogenic acids. These compounds are thought to provide the majority of coffee’s antioxidant effects.
The caffeine content of coffee can also vary widely, ranging from 50 mg to over 300 mg per cup. Caffeine is well-known to stimulate the central nervous system, providing some people with mental alertness and others with anxious jitters. The way we respond to caffeine comes down to genetics — some people are quicker metabolizers or it than others.
Coffee and Longevity: The Research
Studies involving coffee and longevity encompass two main areas of research: The first looks at cellular measures of aging, such as telomere length and autophagy. The second involves population-based studies that look at mortality risk and lifespan.
Coffee Improves Cellular Measures of Longevity
Telomere length is a commonly used marker for biological age; telomeres are the “end caps” to our chromosomes that protect them from degradation. Biological age, also known as physiological age, is different from the chronological age that’s based on your birth date.
When telomeres get shorter, and chromosomes get degraded, mainly due to oxidative damage, biological age is increased, and lifespan is decreased.
In a July 2016 study published in the Journal of Nutrition, a prospective cohort study of female nurses found a positive correlation between telomere length and coffee consumption. Those who drank three or more cups of coffee per day were 36% more likely to have longer telomeres than non-coffee drinkers.
An important note is that those who drank decaffeinated coffee did not see a similar trend — possibly because the decaffeination process has also been shown to degrade some of the phenolic and bioactive compounds found in coffee that provide antioxidants.
Another study attempted to tease out the differences between caffeine and coffee. Published in January 2017 in Nutrition & Metabolism, the researchers looked at the impact of both coffee and caffeine consumption on telomere length.
In the study, caffeine consumption from any source was significantly and inversely related to telomere length. However, coffee intake was positively associated with telomere length. The authors indicate that the antioxidant levels in coffee may offset the detrimental effects of caffeine on telomere length.
Another marker of aging is mTOR (mammalian target of rapamycin); inhibition of the mTOR pathway has been found to slow down the aging process and increase longevity.
In an animal study published in Nutrients, diabetic rats had their food supplemented with two varieties of coffee (arabica and robusta). The results showed downregulated mTOR expression and improved metabolic markers.
Coffee may also induce autophagy, as seen in a study in mice. Autophagy is our body’s internal recycling process that removes damaged or dysfunctional cells; a breakdown in the autophagy process can accelerate aging and increase the risk of developing chronic diseases.
Coffee Reduces the Risk of Mortality
In a large cohort study of half a million people in the UK, published in JAMA Internal Medicine in August 2018, coffee drinkers had significant reductions in the risk of all-cause mortality, even in those who drank up to 8 cups of coffee per day. Similar results were seen in those who drank decaffeinated coffee.
Similarly, an umbrella review of meta-analyses published in BMJ looked at coffee consumption and health outcomes. People who drank 3 to 4 cups of coffee per day had the most benefits. Compared to those who didn’t drink coffee, they had a 17% relative risk reduction in all-cause mortality and a 19% reduction in cardiovascular-related mortality.
Another study found that the greatest mortality reduction was seen in individuals who drank 4 to 5 cups of coffee per day. All studies mentioned that drinking smaller amounts of coffee, such as 1 or 2 cups per day, did provide benefits in reducing the risk of mortality. However, it seems that the cumulative effect of antioxidants from each cup of coffee leads to the greatest improvements in lifespan.
Are There Downsides to Drinking Coffee?
Although these studies show a lot of promise for the benefits of drinking coffee, especially in larger amounts, there are some potential negative effects.
Especially in people who are slow metabolizers of caffeine, a greater amount of coffee consumption could impact their sleep quality and increase feelings of anxiety after drinking caffeine.
The differences in caffeine metabolism come from the gene CYP1A2, which controls an enzyme of the same name that regulates how quickly you metabolize caffeine through your system.
People with this gene variant could also see higher spikes in cortisol, the stress hormone, after drinking coffee or other caffeine sources. Although cortisol is a naturally-occurring and necessary hormone, you don’t want cortisol to be constantly spiking throughout the day. This can lead to overtaxed adrenal glands in the long run.
Another factor to be aware of is what you are adding to your coffee. If you are having six cups of sweet and creamy coffee per day, the health benefits will likely be overcome by the negative effects of sugar. So, try to keep your coffee black!
Lastly, as caffeine is a drug, chronic consumption of coffee can lead to caffeine addiction. Upon quitting caffeine, withdrawal symptoms of headaches and irritability are common.
- Coffee has several health benefits, mainly stemming from the high number of bioactive compounds that function as antioxidants and reduce oxidative stress in the body.
- Studies have shown that coffee consumption is linked to improved cellular markers of aging, like increased telomere length and expression of autophagy.
- Population-based studies have found that coffee consumption, typically in the range of 3 to 5 cups per day, is associated with the greatest reductions in the risk of all-cause mortality and improvements in healthspan.
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