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Coffee reduces mortality risk – but effect is minimal

Coffee drinkers live a little longer than people who don't drink coffee. American epidemiologists at the National Institutes of Health discovered this after following four hundred thousand men and women for nearly thirteen years, in one of the biggest studies ever done on the health effects of coffee.

The last few years have seen a burgeoning of good-news stories on coffee. According to Finnish [Br J Nutr. 2008 Jun;99(6):1354-61.] and American studies, [Ann Intern Med. 2008 Jun 17;148(12):904-14.] the more cups of coffee you drink each day, the longer you'll live. Coffee drinkers are said to be protected against neurological [Eur J Clin Nutr. 2007 Feb;61(2):226-32.] and cardiological problems, and less likely to develop diabetes.

Large-scale epidemiological studies confirm these reports, including the study mentioned here, which the Americans will soon publish in the New England Journal of Medicine. We took the figure below out of the publication. It shows the effects of four cups of coffee per day on the mortality risk of men. The figure for women is pretty much the same.

Generally speaking coffee reduces the risk of mortality by about ten percent. That's not such a lot. The researchers are not claiming that their study says coffee is 'healthy' – the positive effects of coffee are too weak for this – but the researchers do say that coffee drinkers definitely don’t need to worry about potentially negative health effects of coffee. Because there aren't any.

Coffee reduces mortality risk – but effect is minimal

The chance of dying from cancer increases by a few percent in coffee drinkers, but the effect is negligible. If you're not convinced (the human mind is irrational): according to the researchers, the chance of developing cancer starts to rise in those who drink four or more cups of coffee a day.

The figure below shows part of a table with data for men, but again the situation for women is almost identical.

Coffee reduces mortality risk – but effect is minimal

The researchers also draw attention to the substances that may be responsible for the positive health effects of coffee. "Coffee contains more than 1000 compounds that might affect the risk of death", they write. "The most well studied compound is caffeine, although similar associations for caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee in the current study suggest that, if the relationship between coffee consumption and mortality were causal, other compounds in coffee (e.g., antioxidants, including polyphenols) might be important."

N Engl J Med. 2012 May 17;366(20):1891-904.

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