History and Legend
Coffee has progressed a long way from its peculiar origins. According to one myth, an observant goat herder in the 9th century noticed his flock going berserk after eating the bright berries from a certain bush.
Being a curious sort, he sampled the fruit himself and was overcome with a sense of focus and exhilaration. A monk at a nearby monastery disapproved of this find after being shown this miraculous fruit and tossed them into the fire.
As legend has it, an enticing smell emanated from the coals. It was so potently alluring that the entire monastery emptied to find the incredible smell, so much so that those burnt beans were found.
Fished from the ashes, ground, and mixed with hot water those coffee beans produced a seductively dark, fragrant potion. Thus, the first cup of coffee was born of accident and mishap- but has provided enduring benefits through the centuries since.
Coffee As Culture
Today, the simple drink has progressed to become much more than a simple mug of hot water and burnt beans. Coffee is now an event, a time of day, and a welcome balm to the overwrought and exhausted brain.
It’s also big business all over the world, whether grown in the Coffee Belt around the Earth’s equator or served in the millions of shops around the world.
Daily, new coffee drinks are concocted featuring a dizzying variety of manifestations, origins, and preparations. Recent studies have emerged, though, that bring coffee into a realm beyond the comforting Mug Of Joe and into the forefront of modern health studies.
A Population of Coffee Drinkers
A recent study at the Harvard School of Public Health has delved into the benefits of the moderate consumption of coffee. In November 2015, the medical journal ‘Circulation’ published the results of a long-term, large population study of health care workers who self- reported daily coffee usage.
In total, 167 000 women and 40 000 men were followed and reported upon. Though the subjects of the study were 95% white middle-class medical workers, the length of study and its large population were thought to still give accurate insight into the health benefits of coffee over time. Previous studies showed that two cups of coffee daily enhanced cognitive function and mood perception in sleep deprived people- but were there deeper benefits to be found beyond simple alertness?
Longevity In A Mug?
Results from that research project were astonishing and encouraging. No matter if the subjects drank regular or decaf coffee, their overall premature mortality rate- that through disease or physical dysfunction- was 15% lower than non-coffee drinkers.
Specifically, these moderate coffee drinkers were observed to have lower overall risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, neurological diseases (such as Parkinson’s Disease), and suicide.
Consumption averaged a content of around 200mg of caffeine daily- roughly two to three cups. However, researchers were careful to note that coffee is an incredibly complex substance and that it was probably not just the caffeine alone that provided the extended benefits.
Compounds like lignins and quinides as well as a high magnesium content probably all work synergistically in the human body to produce the desirable results.
Examination of dietary components of the coffee loving study subjects showed a trend towards eating more red meat and drinking more alcohol; conversely, those same people ate a significantly smaller amount of highly sugared foods and drinks. The Harvard Study also noted that coffee did not have the same effect on all people.
When data from smokers and former smokers was examined, it found that coffee did not improve their overall risk factors. Also, while moderate consumption- two to three cups- showed beneficial results, subjects who drank five or more cups of coffee daily showed no more or less risk than the non-coffee drinking population.
A Popular Study Subject
The Harvard School of Public Health is not alone in its fascination with America’s favorite pick-me-up beverage. The National Cancer Institute has also done exhaustive studies examining the benefits and risks of coffee consumption.
In an independent in-depth study between 1995 and 2008, 400 000 volunteers between the ages of 50 and 71 reported their daily coffee intake. By the end of the thirteen-year-long study, 50 000 subjects had died, but the resulting population revealed some interesting correlations.
Both men and women who drank two to three cups of coffee daily were less likely to suffer from premature death (10% lower for men and 13% lower for women respectively). In particular, coffee drinkers had lower instances of type II diabetes, liver cancer, endometrial cancer, basal cell carcinoma, neurological diseases, and cardiovascular disease. Additionally, that study showed a positive correlation between coffee and a decreased risk of early dementia.
It is postulated that chemicals in coffee- caffeine included- prevent and repair inflammatory processes in the brain that lead to long-term memory loss.
This interesting result lead to consequent research at the University of South Florida and the University of Miami in 2012. Blood serum levels of caffeine were examined in adult patients exhibiting minor age related memory impairment who either drank no coffee or drank three or more cups daily.
After two to four years the same subjects were re-evaluated, revealing that non-coffee drinkers were more likely to have fully developed Alzheimer’s Disease in the interim.
Again, researchers are unsure if the positive benefits stemmed purely from the caffeine content of coffee or the potent phytochemical profile of the coffee bean itself.
Given its overall utility and popularity, it is doubtful that Americans would curb their coffee consumption even if it was proven to be mildly unhealthy- which is true with excessive consumption.
Researchers in the Harvard Study were also careful to point out that the benefits of coffee do not necessarily carry over with over-sugared or fat laden versions.
Coffee, it seems, is meant to be an enjoyable adjunct to healthy diet and lifestyle, and not a magic potion for eternal youth. In the meanwhile, though, it seems perfectly reasonable to raise a mug and toast to future good health.
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