Caffeine is the most widely used psychoactive drug in the world, and Americans’ virtual addiction to coffee has long been the butt of lame jokes.
Certainly, it’s no coincidence that the current coffee craze began in the Pacific Northwest, where caffeine is craved for its unquestioned capacity to counter the gloomy effects of chronic cloudiness.
Of course, some people can't handle caffeine, due to their sensitivity to its stimulant and sleep-deferring effects.
That said, there is little evidence that in moderation, caffeine is unhealthful. In fact, caffeine is associated with many benefits... aside from the ones attributed to the abundant antioxidants that accompany it in tea and coffee.
But despite encouraging indications dating back decades, only recently has research begun to discover specific brain-health benefits from caffeine… and detail how this popular buzz brings them about.
While coffee is the richest common source of caffeine—excepting misnamed “energy” drinks like Red Bull—tea has lesser but still ample amounts. And both beverages abound in polyphenol antioxidants with beneficial “nutrigenomic” effects that mitgate against inflammation.
We should note that many millions of South Americans get caffeine from popular guaraná-fueled soda pops or the Argentine herbal tea called yerba maté, which (unlike guaraná drinks) is rich in antioxidants.
Evidence review finds ample evidence of caffeine brain benefits
In a special supplement to the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, leading researchers in the field collaborated to present key findings from across the globe, in a new evidence review aptly titled “Therapeutic Opportunities for Caffeine in Alzheimer's Disease and Other Neuro-degenerative Diseases.”
(Neuro-degeneration means damage to or loss of brain cells, which are collectively called neurons.)
The new evidence review, authored by prominent neuro-scientists in Spain, found that substantial evidence from epidemiological and animal studies suggests that caffeine may help deter the cognitive decline seen in dementia and Alzheimer’s disease (AD).
The caffeine review covered two major topics:
How caffeine produces its apparent brain-function benefits.
How caffeine inhibits specific brain-degeneration processes.
The authors provided two examples of two disorders—Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s—in which epidemiological and animal studies provide mutually reinforcing evidence in favor of caffeine’s brain-protecting potential.
For example, regular, substantial coffee drinking was linked to significantly reduced risks of Alzheimer’s disease in a recently published 21-year Finnish epidemiological study (diet-health survey) in 1,409 people.
In that study, the greatest risk reduction (65 percent) was seen in people who drank three to five cups per day (Eskelinen MH 2009).
As the Finnish authors wrote, “Coffee drinking at midlife is associated with a decreased risk of dementia/AD later in life. This finding might open possibilities for prevention of dementia/AD” (Eskelinen MH 2009).
While coffe is the richest source of caffeine, tea has lesser but still ample amounts... and both beverages abound in polyphenol antioxidants with beneficial "nutrigenomic' effects that mitgate against inflammation.
Let’s look at the global findings to date, as recounted in the Spanish-led team’s new evidence review.
Key findings of the new caffeine-health evidence review
These were the major findings presented in “Therapeutic Opportunities for Caffeine in Alzheimer's Disease and Other Neurodegenerative Diseases”:
Caffeine displays multiple neuro-protective effects.
Caffeine may help protect against Parkinson’s disease.
Caffeine prevents brain degeneration via multiple pathways
Caffeine enhances cognitive (thinking) and memory performance.
Caffeine normalizes brain function and mood via multiple pathways.
Caffeine cuts production of the brain plaque associated* with Alzheimer’s.
*Note: It remains unclear whether amyloid-beta protein plaque is a cause of Alzheimer’s disease, a side effect, or an immune response to some unknown disease process.
As the authors noted, decisive clinical trials testing caffeine for brain protection and performance enhancement are needed. But they also cited methodological issues that make it hard to design such trials.
They also made an important observation about the difficulty of gauging brain protection through standardized tests alone:
“…the daily follow-up of patients with AD [in various studies] has taught us that improvement of daily living may be a more significant indicator of amelioration than slight improvements in objective measures of memory performance.”
And they continued with a comment that has implications for the importance of omega-3s as well as caffeine:
“One of the most prevalent complications of AD is depression of mood, and the recent observations that caffeine might be a mood normalizer are of particular interest.”
Who doesn’t need all the (healthful, sustainable) mood assistance they can get? Excuse me while I refresh my mug.
Cunha RA. Neuroprotection by adenosine in the brain: From A(1) receptor activation to A (2A) receptor blockade. Purinergic Signal. 2005 Jun;1(2):111-34. Epub 2005 Mar 17.
Cunha RA, de Mendonca A. Therapeutic Opportunities for Caffeine in Alzheimer's Disease and Other Neurodegenerative Diseases. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease
Eskelinen MH, Ngandu T, Tuomilehto J, Soininen H, Kivipelto M. Midlife coffee and tea drinking and the risk of late-life dementia: a population-based CAIDE study. J Alzheimers Dis. 2009 Jan;16(1):85-91.
Ritchie K, Carrière I, de Mendonca A, Portet F, Dartigues JF, Rouaud O, Barberger-Gateau P, Ancelin ML. The neuroprotective effects of caffeine: a prospective population study (the Three City Study). Neurology. 2007 Aug 7;69(6):536-45.
Maia L, de Mendonça A. Does caffeine intake protect from Alzheimer's disease? Eur J Neurol. 2002 Jul;9(4):377-82.