There are a lot of reasons to drink coffee--especially when it’s harvested, roasted, and brewed in a way that maximizes its healthful and flavorful qualities. It tastes great first thing in the morning or as an afternoon pick me up. It boosts energy and mental acuity to help you accomplish your daily tasks. You may have also heard about how it provides an infusion of antioxidants to help prevent a bevy of diseases.
All these things are true. But even more than that, coffee is also one of the keys to overall longevity. This means that a healthy coffee habit can literally prevent an early death.
The results from a number of studies support this exciting news, and some research also points to a connection between coffee and an anti-inflammatory response in the body. A 2006 paper by Andersen et al. examined that connection as part of the Iowa Women’s Health study. The researchers followed the health and lifespan of over 40,000 women ages 55–69 for a total of fifteen years. They excluded pre-existing cardiovascular diseases, liver cirrhosis, diabetes, and cancer to make sure they would be able to tell what kind of difference coffee was making without worrying about other factors. At the end of the study, approximately 27,000 subjects remained alive and the rest had passed away. Researchers found that coffee had an antioxidant effect that lessened the chance of cardiovascular and other inflammatory diseases in subjects who drank up to 5 cups of coffee each day.
"Three to five cups of coffee a day, is associated with lower risk in total mortality and mortality from several causes like diabetes, cardiovascular disease and suicide.”-Frank Hu, Harvard professor of nutrition and epidemiology
According to the Center for Disease Control, cardiovascular disease and cancer are both in the top three causes of death in the United States. In 2015, cardiovascular disease killed 633,842 people while cancer caused the deaths of 595,930. Coffee drinkers have demonstrated a 30% lower chance of congestive heart failure as well as varying levels of lowered risk against different types of cancers. Diabetes breaks the top ten listed causes of death in the US as well, with 79,535 people dying of it in 2015. Coffee has been proven to safeguard against and even help reverse type 2 diabetes, with studies showing that people who have six cups per day reducing their risk of the disease by 33%.
Coffee’s effects on longevity are seen all over the world. A cohort study that took place over 16 years and across ten European countries showed that the inverse relationship between coffee drinking and mortality did not change from one country to another. The researchers found not only a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer, but also digestive disorders in men and cerebrovascular diseases in women, such as strokes.
The effectiveness of coffee in promoting longevity has been verified across multiple ethnicities--not just in people of European descent. A study published in 2017 by Park et al. investigated coffee’s effects on longevity in African Americans, Native Hawaiians, Japanese Americans, Latinos, and whites that were 45 to 75 years old. Data was collected between 2003 and 2015. There was a .88 hazard ratio for people who drank one cup per day, .82 for 2 to 3 cups a day as well as for more than 4 cups per day. While there was a slight inverse trend in the Native Hawaiian population, the study demonstrated that for African Americans, Japanese Americans, Latinos, and Whites, coffee was correlated with an overall longer life. The researchers also found these results to be the same for those who drank caffeinated coffee and those who drank decaf.
Why is coffee so good at keeping us alive?
Until recently, scientists knew that coffee contributed to longevity, but they were unsure of which of its hundreds of compounds and chemicals actually made the difference. Now more studies are looking at the genetic interactions between different components of coffee and how they affect health and longevity. A study from Biobank UK published in 2018 looked specifically into what effects caffeine metabolism might have on coffee drinkers’ overall mortality. The study took place over ten years between 2006 and 2016 and surveyed half a million subjects after testing their DNA for their rates of caffeine metabolism.
Earlier studies, including one published by Human Molecular Genetics in December 2016, determined that DNA can indicate whether someone metabolizes caffeine slowly or quickly. People with slow caffeine metabolism are more sensitive to its effects—they are more prone to jitters or to being unable to sleep when consuming coffee too late in the afternoon. People who have high caffeine metabolism tend to drink more coffee because the psychoactive effects aren’t too powerful. For this reason, scientists used baseline demographics, lifestyle, and genetic data to determine hazard ratios for the amount of coffee consumed and the likelihood of dying during the 10 year period.
Results were surprising, but were ultimately great news for people who love drinking a LOT of coffee. The average amount of caffeine a person consumed in a day had no effect on overall longevity. But what they did find was that there was an inverse correlation between the likelihood of death by multiple causes and the amount of coffee a person drank. People who drank one cup per day had a 6% lower likelihood of death, while those who drank 3–5 cups were between 12 and 16% less likely to die for any reason. The researchers found similar positive results with decaffeinated coffee. Plus, they found that longevity was also increased in people who drank ground coffee rather than instant.
The results demonstrate that coffee’s qualities as an elixir of life have little if anything to do with caffeine intake. In that case, what might the miracle molecules be? The answer may lie in the inflammation inhibiting power of antioxidants, which come into play time and time again in disease prevention and treatment. Heart disease, diabetes, and cancers all have an inflammatory component that can be reduced by large doses of antioxidants, and this is thought to be why coffee has such measurable impact on people who are at risk of these diseases.
Additionally, the fact that ground coffee was healthier than instant coffee indicates that production and preparation matters. Instant coffee is not fresh and often has most of the antioxidants burned out of it. Ground coffee has the capacity to be fresher and produced in a healthier way. This type of care in the production process often comes with retention of coffee’s antioxidant properties, particularly if that coffee is organic, specialty grade, and a balanced, medium roast.
Interestingly, coffee was also shown in a 2015 study to help strands of DNA keep their integrity instead of breaking. The ends of DNA strands are called telomeres, and are often compared to the plastic ends of shoelaces. Scientists have discovered that one of the major signs of aging are shortened and broken telomeres. The breakdown leads to a number of health problems from damaged, sagging skin to cancer. Coffee’s protective effects against oxidation and free radical damage may be part of what helps keep DNA integrity. The fact that coffee delays DNA breakage is evidence that coffee actually can help keep us looking and feeling youthful!
It’s important, however, to be careful about other lifestyle factors besides coffee drinking. While healthy coffee and the antioxidants it contains can protect the body from disease, enough smoking, alcohol, stress, or sleep deprivation can still take a toll on the body and threaten to undo all coffee’s good qualities. For example, most studies regarding coffee and longevity have excluded smokers from their data due to the major health risk that smoking poses. It’s important when you use coffee as a supplement to your health to make sure you’re also doing what you can to keep other parts of your lifestyle on the up and up.
- Zhang et al 2009: Coffee Consumption and Risk of Cardiovascular Diseases and All-Cause Mortality Among Men With Type 2 Diabetes
- Bakuradze et al 2015: Consumption of a dark roast coffee decreases the level of spontaneous DNA strand breaks: a randomized controlled trial.
- Andersen et al 2006: Consumption of coffee tied to decrease risk of death attributed to inflammatory or cardiovascular diseases
- Park et al 2017: Association of Coffee Consumption With Total and Cause-Specific Mortality Among Nonwhite Populations