Doctor's Advice on Coffee and Alzheimer's: Before You Grab That Second Cup of Joe...

David Roeltgen, MD Health Guide
  • Ah, every morning, many of us get our “pick-me-up” from a cup or more of java. The increased number of coffee houses and chains that advertise or specialize in coffee grows every day. Now, some researchers are suggesting that caffeine, not just from coffee but from any source, can help prevent Alzheimer’s disease.


    Does this mean we should all start consuming caffeine?

    For some of us this could be an excuse to indulge in chocolate. For some of us this could be a reason to drink that 2 liter bottle of cola daily. For some of us this could be support for the 5 or more cups of coffee daily.

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    Taken to the extreme, if we can prevent Alzheimer’s disease with caffeine, maybe we should start kids on coffee when they are little!


    I believe that we need to look closely at what the support is for claims that caffeine can help prevent Alzheimer’s disease.


    What has been shown is that if large doses of caffeine are given to a mouse, there is improvement in the mouse’s ability to run a maze. Also, there are documented relationships between previous caffeine consumption and whether or not someone has Alzheimer’s disease.


    Let’s look at each of these pieces of information.


    Animal studies of possible preventive drugs are very common and also commonly successful. That is, they show some benefit of a drug in helping behavior and changing brain function or structure. This benefit only rarely results in a medication that is of benefit to people. If we all used every drug that has been successfully tested in animals, we would all be taking dozens of drugs, many of which might be harmful. When we take a drug, including medicinal drugs, it should have a clearly defined potential benefit that is greater than the potential risks. If the potential benefit has only been studied in animals, we have no ability to examine the ratio of the potential risk to the potential benefit.


    The relationships between a behavior in the past and a current medical state (i.e., drinking coffee in the past and having [or not having] Alzheimer’s disease) are common. These relationships do not indicate a cause and effect. For example, people who drink coffee are more likely to smoke cigarettes than those who don’t. Therefore, we might conclude that smoking cigarettes is more common in people who do not get Alzheimer's disease and possibly, smoking could help prevent Alzheimer’s disease. 


    Caffeine is a stimulant. For some people this might improve concentration. Indeed, stimulants have been shown to be helpful in some settings of recovery from stroke. However, they are used with great caution in older people because of risks. The risks may be as minimal as increased headaches and nervousness and as severe as increased stroke risk or heart attack risk.


    Based on these perspectives, it would be my recommendation that increased coffee consumption in an attempt to prevent Alzheimer's disease is not something that is supported at the present time. Future research may change that. However, for the time being, perhaps an extra glass of juice or glass of water might be a more judicious accompaniment to breakfast, rather than an extra cup of coffee.

Published On: May 16, 2007