Think of some of the classic coffee commercials from your lifetime. Joe DiMaggio trading in his bat to become Mr. Coffee. Maxwell House promising you that “it tastes as good as it smells.” Juan Valdez offering you “100% Colombian” during the 80s, or Folger’s being the best part of waking up. What those commercials failed to tell you, though, was that the caffeine in coffee can also help prevent deadly inflammation in older adults. I guess it didn’t fit into a jingle.
More likely, it’s because this potentially life-saving connection was just recently discovered by researchers at Stanford University. While there is still testing to be done, there seems to be a correlation between caffeine and the inflammation process known to lead to serious cardiovascular problems in some older adults.
If you or a loved one is suffering from inflammation, this news could help improve health, increase lifespan, and help them enjoy a better quality of life. Researchers may not have the charisma of Joltin Joe or Juan Valdez, but they may have found something even more important.
Understanding Inflammation, Atherosclerosis, and Caffeine
In January, Nature Medicine published a study by David Furman and others about the link between inflammation and caffeine, citing a long study involving blood samples, surveys, and the family histories of over 100 individuals. (The full paper is here, but you have to pay to read it.) In it, the researchers discussed the role of metabolites in triggering inflammation.
Metabolites are essentially the byproduct of nucleic acid breakdown, a process that often happens with aging. These acids, which are the molecules that serve as the building blocks in our genes, then circulate throughout the bloodstream and, in some individuals, can cause inflammation.
The problem with this inflammation is that it often leads to cardiovascular issues. One of the main diseases that this cellular breakdown can turn into is atherosclerosis, an arterial plaque build-up—the cause of heart attacks, strokes, and other potential heart diseases.
There is also growing evidence that inflammation, by causing clots and plaque, is an indirect, but important factor in Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, which goes a long way toward explaining why these diseases are often associated with old age. Our cells break down, starting a terrible chain reaction. In fact, some estimate that 90% of noncommunicable diseases in older adults are caused by inflammation.
So, that’s the bad news. Now what can we do to prevent it?
How Caffeine Counters Inflammation’s Ill Effects
In their paper, Furman and associates “provide evidence that caffeine and its own metabolites may counter the action of these circulating nucleic acid metabolites.” It’s extremely complicated, and is explained here (more simply than the paper, but still complex to fully understand). Essentially, though, over a 10-year period, researchers found that people who tended to be more caffeinated had less inflammation-related diseases than those who didn’t partake.
It was shown that the metabolites in caffeine can actually counteract the damaging metabolites created by cellular breakdown. They interact in such a way that reduces inflammation, and reduces the chances of disease. Caffeine has been correlated with longevity for a long time, but now there seems to be a scientific backing for the claim.
How the Coffee Generation Can Healthfully Consume Caffeine
Of course, that doesn’t mean you should be chugging coffee. Older adults today are part of the “Coffee Generation” that popularized the drink as part of an every morning experience (which may actually help explain increasing lifespans). But being overcaffeinated can harm sleep, and lack of sleep can also be a contributing factor to Alzheimer’s. In addition, fatigue can lead to more falls, disorientation, and a lack of socialization. So it’s important to balance your intake with other health needs.
Along those lines, there are also good and bad sources of caffeine. Don’t start chugging sugar-heavy energy drinks. Here are some better options:
- Chocolate (especially heart-healthy dark chocolate)
- Tea (hot or iced)
- Caffeine pills (but use caution)
In short, it’s about balance. You or the older adult in your life needs to balance the benefits of caffeine with the dangers of overdoing it, or getting it from sources that have other potential health risks. It’s important to talk to your loved one’s health professional or doctor about finding that balance.
But it is good to know that, all things being equal, there’s nothing wrong with a cuppa morning joe. Given that it can help prevent the cruelties of inflammation and its subsequent diseases, leading to a potentially longer and healthier life with improved physical and mental capabilities, it truly is the best part of waking up.
Institute on Aging offers a wide range of programs, services, and online resources to help older adults and their caregivers live independently, with dignity and adventure. Get in touch with us today to learn more.