Thanks to today’s 24/7/365 news coverage and the public’s obsession with health, it seems like every week there’s a new study either touting or demonizing something we’ve been consuming for years as a miracle food or the newest thing that’ll kill you.
One of the most popular subjects of such speculation is coffee. If we believe everything the health reporters on the news tell us, coffee will cure cancer, induce heart attacks, prevent mental decline and ensure debilitating migraines, all while either saving a bus full of small children being thrown from a bridge or plotting to take over the world. In other words—science and society have made a lot of claims, most of them pretty big, about such a tiny bean.
To be fair, though, that tiny bean plays a huge part in the life of the average American. Recent statistics show that about three-quarters of the caffeine consumed in the US comes from coffee, and that over $4 billion worth of coffee—that’s right, billion, with a b—is imported to the US annually.
So with all this caffeine we’re ingesting, what exactly are the health effects, for good or for bad?
It’s hard to say; most of the research is inconclusive, especially when compared with other lifestyle habits such as smoking, drinking alcohol, and exercise and diet habits. For every bad claim, there’s a good one. It has been shown that caffeine can increase blood pressure, but only temporarily; and there is some evidence, though it’s not conclusive, that caffeine consumption can help the elderly retain mental acuity longer.
There is, however, one thing that experts can agree on—too much caffeine is a bad thing (though many disagree on exactly how much is too much). More than 300 mg—about the equivalent of three cups of coffee—a day has been shown to have detrimental effects in the short term, and possibly in the long run as well.
It should also be noted that caffeine sensitivity increases with age; the elderly may be more susceptible to its immediate effects, which on the upside include increased energy, wakefulness, and an ability to focus, but can also include jitters, tremors, nervousness, upset stomach, and a fast heartbeat. Not only can age contribute to this, but certain medications and supplements may increase caffeine concentration in the blood (such as echinacea) or have their own side effects amplified by caffeine (like antibiotics).
What should you take away from the jumble of information available out there about the effects of caffeine? Cut back that consumption, especially if you’re older—a cup or two a day should suffice—and as always, if you have any questions or concerns, it’s best to skip the (probably confusing) Google search and ask your doctor.