Forty Years of Observations on the Effects of Coffee

We live in a world with an increasingly short news cycle. All too often the news contains half-baked opinions that are presented as fact. In regard to coffee consumption it is nice to see that someone has taken the long view (forty years). Business Insider just published an interview with Harvard University researcher, Dr. Frank Hu. The good doctor who has personally studied coffee for twenty years just published, along with associates, an article showing that people who drink coffee have a lower mortality than folks who do not drink coffee. And he provides some insights in the interview.

Dr. Frank Hu just finished a 40-year study on the effects of coffee on the human body. People who drink more coffee it turns out, live longer.

Specifically, Hu’s study found that coffee-drinkers have lower risks of cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases, as well as suicide.

The research began in 1976, and involved nearly 210,000 people. With all the follow-ups over the years, the study includes 4.7 million person-years of data. The scale meant it took several generations of scientists to complete the study. Hu, a researcher and professor at Harvard Medical School, himself joined in 1996. The enormous amount of data was useful, because coffee is an extraordinarily complicated drink.

“Coffee is certainly a very complex beverage,” Hu told INSIDER. Besides caffeine, it contains hundreds, perhaps thousands, of bioactive compounds. So it’s very difficult, perhaps impossible, to tease out the effects of individual compounds or chemicals.”

This is an ongoing observational study about which we wrote recently in our article, Drink Coffee, Live Longer. The basis of this ongoing work is yearly interviews with tens of thousands of people and the information obtained has to do with a broad range of health issues and habits besides just coffee.

Long Term Health Studies

The studies from which Dr. Hu and colleagues got their data include the Nurses’ Health Study which began in 1976, Nurses’ Health Study II started in 1989 and Health Professionals Follow Study started in 1986. The sum total of 4,690,072 person-years of data has been obtained. (This the sum of people in the study times the years each has participated for all entrants.) The Nurses’ Health Professional Follow-up tracks incidence of disease, various habits over a lifetime and date and cause of death.

The Nurses’ Health Studies are among the largest and longest running investigations of factors that influence women’s health. Started in 1976 and expanded in 1989, the information provided by the 238,000 dedicated nurse-participants has led to many new insights on health and disease. While the prevention of cancer is still a primary focus, the study has also produced landmark data on cardiovascular disease, diabetes and many other conditions. Most importantly, these studies have shown that diet, physical activity and other lifestyle factors can powerfully promote better health.

The fact of the matter is that much of medical data is anecdotal, based in a handful of cases treated by a handful of physicians. Prior to this study there was little or no hard data regarding life habits such as exercise, smoking, drinking coffee, work hours, etc. for sufficiently large populations to provide useful information. With forty years of data most recently summed up by Dr. Hu and others we can see strong associations between life habits such as exercise, smoking and drinking coffee. Where does coffee fit in all of this?

Drink Coffee and Live Longer

As the researcher, Dr. Hu, is quoted as saying, coffee is a very complicated drink. But the data shows that over the years drinking coffee reduces the risk, year by year, of dying from heart disease, degenerative neurologic diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s and suicide. The sad fact of the matter is that if you smoke you increase all of these risks. Researchers believe that coffee consumption perhaps helps smokers but the negative effect of smoking outweighs the positive effect of coffee. The take home point of all of this is that exercise in good for you, smoking is bad and you will live longer if you routinely drink coffee.


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