By Michael Greger M.D. FACLM
Do coffee drinkers live longer than non-coffee drinkers? Is it “wake up and smell the coffee” or don’t wake up at all?
The largest study ever conducted on diet and health put that question to the test, examining the association between coffee drinking and subsequent mortality among hundreds of thousands of older men and women in the United States. Coffee drinkers won, though the effect was modest, a 10-15% lower risk of death for those drinking six or more cups a day. This was due specifically to lower risk of dying from heart disease, respiratory disease, stroke, injuries and accidents, diabetes, and infections.
However, in another study that amount of coffee was found to increase the death rate of younger people under age 55. It may be appropriate, then, to recommend that you avoid drinking more than four cups a day.
But if you review all the studies, the bottom line is that coffee consumption is associated with no change or a small reduction in mortality starting around one or two cups a day, for both men and women. The risk of dying was 3% lower for each cup of coffee consumed daily, which provides reassurance for the concern that coffee drinking might adversely affect health, or at least longevity.
A recent population study found no link between coffee consumption and symptoms of GERD, reflux diseases such as heartburn and regurgitation. If you actually stick a tube down people’s throats and measure pH, though, coffee induces significant acid reflux, whereas tea does not. Is this just because tea has less caffeine? No. If you reduce the caffeine content of the coffee down to that of tea, coffee still causes significantly more acid reflux. Decaf causes even less, so GERD patients might want to choose decaffeinated coffee or, even better, opt for tea.
Coffee intake is also associated with urinary incontinence, so a decrease in caffeine intake should be discussed with patients who have the condition. About two cups of coffee a day worth of caffeine may worsen urinary leakage.
A 2014 meta-analysis suggested that daily coffee consumption was associated with a slightly increased risk of bone fractures in women, but a decreased risk of fractures in men. However, no significant association was found between coffee consumption and the risk of hip fracture specifically. Tea consumption may actually protect against hip fracture, though it appears to have no apparent relationship with fracture risk in general.
Certain populations, in particular, may want to stay away from caffeine, including those with glaucoma or a family history of glaucoma, individuals with epilepsy, and, not surprisingly, people who have trouble sleeping. Even a single cup at night can cause a significant deterioration in sleep quality.
We used to think caffeine might increase the risk of an irregular heart rhythm called atrial fibrillation, but that was based on anecdotal case reports like one of a young woman who suffered atrial fibrillation after “chocolate intake abuse.” These cases invariably involved the acute ingestion of very large quantities of caffeine. As a result, the notion that caffeine ingestion may trigger abnormal heart rhythms had become “common knowledge,” and this assumption led to changes in medical practice.
We now have evidence that caffeine does not increase the risk of atrial fibrillation. Low-dose caffeine—defined as less than about five cups of coffee a day—may even have a protective effect.
Tea consumption also appears to lower cardiovascular disease risk, especially when it comes to stroke. But given the proliferation of energy drinks that contain massive quantities of caffeine, one might temper any message that suggests that caffeine is beneficial. Indeed, 12 highly caffeinated energy drinks within a few hours could be lethal.
Michael Greger, is a physician, New York Times bestselling author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues.