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Why scientists say you may want to pour yourself another cup

Michael Simmons

Some of us can’t get going in the morning without a cup of coffee, but could it actually be good for us? Today on “Take Care,” we talk to New York Times “Well” blogger and health journalist Gretchen Reynolds about the benefits, and drawbacks of a cup of Joe. Reynolds wrote about recent scientific studies on coffee and caffeine in the June 9, 2013 edition of the New York Times Magazine.

Click 'Read More' to hear our interview with Gretchen Reynolds.

Reynolds started to look into the health benefits and risks behind coffee because she wanted to justify her own habit -- Reynolds drinks two or three cups of coffee a day. She looked at many studies aimed at finding out relationships between drinking coffee and common diseases and what she found was overwhelmingly positive for coffee drinkers.

“Drinking coffee in these big studies was clearly associated with better health,” she said.

That’s right, men and women who drink two to three cups of coffee (about five ounces per cup) a day tended to live longer by a significant amount, Reynolds reported. On top of that, coffee drinkers had a lower risk of being diagnosed with type two diabetes, certain types of skin cancer, and Alzheimer’s, and of experiencing a recurrence of breast cancer. Reynolds pointed out that scientists did not ask whether participants drank caffeinated or decaffeinated coffee.

Scientists are not yet exactly sure what properties of coffee cause the health benefits, Reynolds said. However, when it comes to blood sugar, coffee affects how you metabolize sugar, which lowers your risk of getting type two diabetes.

At least in one case, it’s not just caffeine in coffee that helps. Scientists did a study where they gave mice that were bred to contract Alzheimer’s either coffee, caffeine or nothing. What they found is that both mice that were given coffee and caffeine were less likely to get Alzheimer’s. But beyond that, those who were given coffee fared better overall than those that were just given caffeine, Reynolds said.

There are plenty of drinks on the market, like sodas and teas, which have caffeine, but do they have the same health benefits as coffee? The short answer is no, says Reynolds. The large amount of sugar, and sometimes fat, in sodas, energy drinks or specialty coffee drinks cancels out any of the health benefits. In fact, Reynolds points out, there is no evidence that says adding sugar and all those other ingredients to drinks better health or alertness.

So will doctors be writing prescriptions for coffee? Some scientists, particularly those working on the Alzheimer’s researchers, say they should, suggesting that middle-aged patients try drinking coffee to lower their risk of dementia in the future.

Reynolds does warn, however, that coffee raises a person’s blood pressure and heart rate so those who have cardiac problems, or issues with blood pressure should consult their doctors before starting a coffee-rich diet. Also, Reynolds warns that because caffeine raises blood pressure, it should not be given to young people, even teenagers.