Study of coffee and dementia stirs worldwide interest

July 20, 2017 by Kathy Quirk, University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee
Ira Driscoll, UWM assistant professor of psychology, enjoys a cup of coffee in her office. Credit: UWM Photo/Troye Fox

Combine a product widely loved with a disease widely dreaded and what do you get? Widespread attention, a UWM researcher found.

Ira Driscoll's study of a possible link between coffee and , published on International Coffee Day, caught the attention of many in the media and produced dozens and dozens of stories.

But, can a couple cups of java a day—or more—help stave off Alzheimer's or dementia?

Well, there may be an association, at least for older women, according to the study that Driscoll, UWM assistant professor of psychology, published in the Journals of Gerontology, Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences.

Her team's study found that higher intake in women over age 65 was associated with a reduced chance of developing dementia or other cognitive impairments.

The study received global media attention, along with some criticism from those who questioned its methods and conclusions.

Driscoll's research looked at 6,467 women who reported drinking caffeinated beverages daily. The data Driscoll and her team analyzed were drawn from the Women's Health Initiative Memory Study of women between the ages of 65 and 80. In the study, the women reported on their caffeine consumption, and their cognitive function was assessed annually for up to 10 years.

Where did the idea for doing this particular study come from?

There were reports just starting to come out on the potential beneficial effects of caffeine on cognition at the time. We thought it would be something that definitely would be easy to follow up on and, although the original study (Women's Health Initiative Memory Study) wasn't specifically designed for just that (looking at ), we had a very large sample and all the information we needed to do it.

Were you surprised at the amount of media attention the study got?

Yes, but the publisher did say they timed to purposely come out on International Coffee Day (Oct. 1), so I think they knew exactly what they were doing. We were just doing the research and were happy it got accepted for publication.

Do efforts to debunk the research bother you?

That's just science. We were very careful to not say we were implying any kind of causative relationship here. All we're saying is that, given the reports that are out there, our study if anything is confirmatory because it's such a large study. We had more data than most other studies published, but we're certainly not saying that this is going to cure dementia or prevent it. Based on our study, that's not something you can conclude. It's something that media picked up on and it's easy for people to relate to, but that's not what the study's about or what it's saying.

So you're not recommending more coffee or tea drinking to prevent dementia?

We don't want people to get terribly excited about this. It (the study) really does not imply causation. This could just be a proxy for something; it could be a proxy for the receptor that caffeine binds to. What we can say is that it does not appear to be harmful, and given that it's something that most of the population consumes already, if it does turn out to be protective, great. But we're not suggesting that people go and load up on caffeine. It's the same thing as exercise or eating a well-balanced diet. None of those things guarantee that you will not develop dementia or or other diseases. But it's something that's fairly easily modifiable and we know it's good in many ways.

What is your continuing area of research?

In general, my research focuses on risks and potential protective factors in relation to dementia. We look at genetic factors, general history, hormonal factors, obesity… This (caffeine) is just one small factor in the list of risks or possible protective factors we could look at. It's just something that the media found more interesting than some of our other work, just because it's so easily relatable to people.

How did you get interested in this whole area of dementia research?

I was fascinated with memory and how memory forms – how we remember and how we forget. That segued into the obvious area of dementia, which is completely losing our memories at some point. Not only is it interesting in its own right, but it also teaches us something about how memory works, even when it's not broken.

Is this an increasing area of interest demographically as the population ages?

Definitely it's an increasing problem. Baby boomers are coming up to that age where they are at risk for developing dementia. The projections are that dementia incidence may even quadruple in the next 30 to 50 years.

What are the next steps in this research?

Well, right now, we don't have any plans to follow up because it's all dependent on funding. But, hopefully, other people will be able to follow up. Certainly, manipulating the amounts of caffeine that people take and being able to follow them over time would be very beneficial as well as tracking where the caffeine is coming from, and whether the source of caffeine makes a difference or not. Also, doing non-human animal research and manipulating receptors might be helpful because you could imply a more direct causative effect than the human studies do.

Are you a coffee drinker yourself?

I do drink coffee, usually a cup or two a day.

Do you have recommendations as a result of the study?

A. Caffeine is similar to other factors like exercise and eating a well-balanced diet. None of these things guarantees you will not develop dementia or cardiovascular disease or any other type of disease, but they are things that are fairly easily modifiable. Coffee does not seem to be harmful and there is some evidence that, in moderation, it's a good thing.

Explore further: Could caffeine help prevent dementia?

More information: Ira Driscoll et al. Relationships Between Caffeine Intake and Risk for Probable Dementia or Global Cognitive Impairment: The Women's Health Initiative Memory Study, The Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences (2016). DOI: 10.1093/gerona/glw078

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