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Giving Coffee a Break

Old Joe

Jogging the Brain

The bottom line: Coffee seems to be harmless for most people. And studies suggest that a cup may actually offer some impressive benefits. In the August 1999 issue of Physiology and Behavior, for instance, English researchers reported that volunteers who drank caffeinated coffee in the morning performed better than nondrinkers on tests that involved learning new information. That holds true for the elderly as well, according to a study in the January 2002 issue of Psychological Science. And a study published in International Journal of Sports Medicine in August 1999 found that attention, psychomotor skills, and long-term memory all improved during the few hours after volunteers drank caffeinated beverages.

Why? Caffeine keeps us alert not by speeding us up but by keeping us from slowing down, according to Michael Bonnet, PhD, professor of neurology at Wright State University in Ohio. Each time brain cells fire, they produce a squirt of a chemical that serves as an "off" switch that keeps neural activity in check. Caffeine, in effect, blocks the chemical -- jamming the switch so that it can't be turned down.

Caffeine also may boost levels of brain-cell calcium, a mineral we know is important in memory. In experiments reported in the October 1999 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, an Israeli researcher observed a calcium increase in brain cells exposed to caffeine.

Is There Any Reason Not to Love Coffee?

However, too much caffeinated coffee can cause problems, experts say. Because caffeine is a stimulant, it can aggravate sleep problems like insomnia.

If you're having trouble getting pregnant, you might want to think about laying off coffee. A few studies have linked caffeine to infertility (although others have found no association).

Finally, if you're feeling anxious or depressed, it's worth easing up on the caffeine, which can exacerbate symptoms.

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