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Giving Coffee a Break

Old Joe

False Alarms continued...

Nor does coffee appear to increase the risk of heart disease, according to a 10-year study of more than 85,000 women. In the February 1996 Journal of the American Medical Association, Harvard researchers reported that women who drank six or more cups of coffee weren't any more likely to have a heart attack than women who drank only one or two cups.

Plenty of other alarms have turned out to be false. A few years back, headlines warned about a possible link between coffee and breast cancer. But in the February 1998 European Journal of Cancer Prevention, Italian researchers reported finding no link. The other worry, concerning osteoporosis, didn't hold much water either. Results of a study published in the June 1997 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that bone thinning wasn't more likely in women who drank coffee.

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.

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