Coffee is far from a vice.
There's now lots of evidence pointing to its health benefits, including a possible longevity boost for those of us with a daily coffee habit.
The latest findings come from a study published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine that included about a half-million people in England, Scotland and Wales. Participants ranged in age from 38 to 73.
"We found that people who drank two to three cups per day had about a 12 percent lower risk of death compared to non-coffee drinkers" during the decade-long study, says Erikka Loftfield, a research fellow at the National Cancer Institute.
This was true among all coffee drinkers — even those who were determined to be slow metabolizers of caffeine. (These are people who tend to be more sensitive to the effects of caffeine.) And the association held up among drinkers of decaffeinated coffee, too.
In the U.S., there are similar findings linking higher consumption of coffee to a lower risk of early death in African-Americans, Japanese-Americans, Latinos and white adults, both men and women. A daily coffee habit is also linked to a decreased risk of stroke and Type 2 diabetes.
What is it about coffee that may be protective? It's not likely to be the caffeine. While studies don't prove that coffee extends life, several studies have suggested a longevity boost among drinkers of decaf as well as regular coffee.
So, researchers have turned their attention to the bean.
"The coffee bean itself is loaded with many different nutrients and phyto-chemicals," nutrition researcher Walter Willett of the Harvard School of Public Health told us in 2015. These compounds include lignans, quinides and magnesium, some of which may help reduce insulin resistance and inflammation. "My guess is that they're working together to have some of these benefits," Willett said. (He's the author of a study that points to a 15 percent lower risk of early death among men and women who drink coffee, compared with those who do not consume it.)
"Coffee, with its thousand chemicals, includes a number of polyphenol-like, antioxidant-rich compounds," says Christopher Gardner, who directs nutrition studies at the Stanford Prevention Research Center. He says there's so much evidence supporting the idea that coffee can be a healthy part of your diet, it's now included in the U.S. Dietary Guidelines. In 2015, the experts behind the guidelines concluded that a daily coffee habit may help protect against Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Gardner says part of the benefit of coffee may be linked to something profoundly simple: It brings people joy.
"Think about when you're drinking coffee — aren't you stopping and relaxing a little bit?" Gardner asks.
He says it's such a simple pleasure. "I just love holding that hot beverage in my hand. It's the morning ritual," he says. He drinks at least three cups a day.
So, how did coffee achieve such an image makeover? It wasn't too long ago that coffee was considered a vice.
Gardner says the bad rap goes back to a time when people who drank coffee were also very likely to smoke cigarettes.
So, when earlier epidemiological studies suggested that coffee consumption was associated with health risks, researchers were thrown off. It wasn't until they separated these two habit apart that a completely different picture emerged.
"Smoking was the cause of the association," Gardner says. "Ever since they disentangled smoking, coffee wasn't just null, it was [shown to be] beneficial."
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Coffee may be more than just a daily pick-me-up. A new study published today in JAMA Internal Medicine adds to the evidence that coffee drinkers tend to live a little longer. And it doesn't seem to matter if you drink regular or decaf. NPR's Allison Aubrey tells us more.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: It wasn't too long ago that coffee was considered a vice. Christopher Gardner directs nutrition studies at the Stanford Prevention Research Center. He says the bad rap goes back to a time when people who drank coffee were also very likely to smoke. So when early studies showed coffee was associated with health risks, researchers were thrown off until they separated the two habits.
CHRISTOPHER GARDNER: The smoking was the cause of the association. And ever since they disentangled smoking, coffee wasn't just null. It was beneficial, which was kind of funny because it flipped it on its head.
AUBREY: In recent years, the evidence has been piling up. Lots of research now suggests that there are health benefits to a daily coffee habit. The latest comes from a study of a half million people who were in their late 30s through their early 70s. Researchers tracked their coffee consumption and their health over a 10-year period. Erikka Loftfield of the National Cancer Institute is a study author.
ERIKKA LOFTFIELD: We found that people who drank two to three cups per day had about a 12 percent lower risk of death compared to non-coffee drinkers.
AUBREY: And drinking more than three cups was tied to an even slightly lower risk of death during the 10-year study. This was true of all coffee drinkers, even those who were determined to be slow metabolizers of caffeine. These are people who tend to be more sensitive to caffeine. And it held up among people who drank decaffeinated too.
LOFTFIELD: And this may suggest that it's non-caffeine components in coffee...
AUBREY: ...That could be driving a benefit. Now, this study does not prove that coffee extends life. So researchers want to better understand why they keep seeing this association. Stanford's Christopher Gardner says coffee beans are loaded with interesting compounds.
GARDNER: Coffee, with its thousand chemicals, includes a number of polyphenol-like, antioxidant-rich compounds.
AUBREY: Some of coffee's bioactive compounds have anti-inflammatory properties too. But Gardner says figuring out how they work together to produce a benefit is complicated. So he's got another theory about what may help explain coffee's ties to longevity - coffee can bring people joy.
GARDNER: Think about when you're drinking coffee. Aren't you stopping and relaxing for a little bit, for the most part?
AUBREY: He says he can't imagine life without it.
GARDNER: Oh, I have three to five cups a day. I just love holding that hot beverage in my hand. It's a morning ritual. (Laughter) And I'd love to encourage people to stop and take a moment.
AUBREY: Gardner says he does have one suggestion for new coffee drinkers - learn to love it without all the frills, things like...
GARDNER: Whipped cream, sugar, chocolate sprinkles and caramel.
AUBREY: He says you don't need all that sugar. The earliest studies of coffee drinkers reflect a time when many people drank it black. Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.