Kona Coffee Drying in Tunnel, Hawaii. Photo by: Chris Kilham © 2009

Coffee’s Protection Against Alzheimer’s

If you have paid attention to the news lately, then you know that there is a lot of buzz about coffee and its possible protective effects against Alzheimer’s disease. But I have concerns that this information is being reported incorrectly.

A study published in 2002 in the European Journal of Neurology followed 54 men over a 20 year period, and found that those who drank coffee had a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease than those who did not drink coffee. This study strongly suggested that coffee may be a preventive factor in Alzheimer’s.

Another Canadian study of 194 cases of Alzheimer’s  found a greater risk of the disease among those who did not drink coffee. Four other studies carried out between 1990 and 2002 also showed that coffee drinking reduced the likelihood of this terrible disease.

In 2009, Finnish researchers published the results of a large study that followed 1,409 individuals for approximately 21 years. That study also showed a lower likelihood of Alzheimer’s disease among those who regularly drank coffee. The lowest risk was among those who drank between three and five cups of coffee per day.

The information gleaned from these studies is really amazing. A simple drink, coffee, may be powerful protection against one of the worst and most horrific diseases known, a disease that degrades mental function and renders people helpless. That’s profound.

Coffee is Not Caffeine!

Despite the fact that the studies above were all based on consuming coffee, many news agencies and scientists are reporting that these studies show that caffeine may be a preventive factor in Alzheimer’s. Yet coffee is not caffeine. Coffee contains caffeine, but coffee is also extremely rich in dozens of other powerful compounds.

In particular, coffee is rich in two groups of compounds called caffeic acids and chlorogenic acids. Extensive research has been performed on these compounds, and we know that they provide powerful protection to the body. Both groups of compounds are antioxidant, both are anti-inflammatory, and both play active roles in the central nervous system. And coffee would not be coffee without them. Both groups of compounds possess anti-cancer properties, liver-protective properties, and many dozens of other beneficial biological functions. In fact, these are superstar compounds in the plant world.

It is certainly possible that caffeine itself provides preventive activity against Alzheimer’s, though tea drinkers show higher risk of Alzheimer’s than coffee drinkers. But the point is that all of the studies so far show that coffee, which has a rich concentration of numerous compounds, is protective. Not caffeine.

In my estimation, much of the current reporting on coffee and Alzheimer’s is sloppy, with reporters and scientists alike referring to coffee and caffeine interchangeably, as though they are the exact same thing. They are not the same.

We know that coffee consumption is associated with reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease. We also know that one cup of coffee per day is not as useful for this purpose as five cups per day. All of the science is on coffee, not on caffeine. Those who report that caffeine reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s disease are skating on thin ice. There are no human studies that demonstrate this. It’s coffee that protects.

I have spent a lot of time researching the caffeic acids and chlorogenic acids found in coffee. And having done so, I wonder (aloud now) if many people aren’t missing something here. Considering the profound biological protective properties exhibited by these groups of compounds, it seems reasonable to suggest that these agents may play important roles in Alzheimer’s prevention. Since both groups are active in the central nervous system, this makes sense.

As we learn the benefits of various foods and beverages, we must take great care to get our science correct. If caffeine were protective against Alzheimer’s, then taking caffeine pills would help to prevent this disease. But there is no evidence that this would be of any benefit. The only evidence we have is that coffee, that rich and robust brew that so many people enjoy for invigoration, is protective. So let’s get it right. Stop saying that caffeine protects against Alzheimer’s. Start saying that coffee, with its powerful caffeic and chlorogenic acid value, may save your mind.

June 2010