Can Caffeine Ward Off Alzheimer's?A hot cup of joe may do more than keep you awake through your next meeting. Research is finding that it may help prevent memory problems.
Medically reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
Anyone with a family history of Alzheimer’s disease or dementiawants to do everything possible to avoid the diseases. Now, researchers have found that some protection may be as close as your coffee mug.
The Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease recently published a special supplement of key findings that suggest caffeine may help keep the brain functioning properly and help ward off Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Here’s what researchers are discovering about caffeine’s role in the brain and how it may protect against memory problems.
Key Research Findings About Alzheimer’s and Caffeine
Research shows that caffeine seems to have a big effect on adenosine receptors, which are found in brain cells. An imbalance of adenosine has been associated with neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s disease, and higher levels of caffeine intake seem to protect against Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers believe regular consumption of caffeine “normalizes” memory function, or protects against the loss of memory, especially among people who are under stress. And stress is a well-known cause of memory problems.
One study found that coffee drinking during the previous two decades was associated with a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Another study of 1,409 people 65 and older found that drinking three to five cups of coffee a day meant a 65 percent decreased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, compared with consumption of little or no coffee.
Animal studies also found that caffeine had beneficial effects on the brain, but the research is conflicting. Some studies have concluded that moderate doses of caffeine helped memory, while high doses seemed to hurt it.
Though caffeine seems to help protect against memory problems, researchers aren’t convinced that it actually enhances memory. A review of studies of caffeine’s effect on memory in people who don’t have dementia found conflicting results — several studies that suggested it improved memory, while others found that it didn’t. At best, researchers say, caffeine may be mildly beneficial in this regard.
Applying the Research to Alzheimer’s Prevention
Although there’s no evidence that anyone can prevent Alzheimer’s disease, some doctors like Dharma Singh Khalsa, MD, the Tucson, Ariz.-based founding president and medical director of the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation and author of Brain Longevity, believe that numerous lifestyle factors can have an important impact on the brain and be protective.
Nutrition, stress-management, exercise, mental stimulation, and possibly hormone therapy may all influence how healthy your brain is, Dr. Khalsa says. “Caffeine is the next level out. Caffeine is a mild stimulant — we think stimulation is synonymous with a better-functioning brain,” he explains, but adds that there’s no one magic bullet. Living a complete, healthy lifestyle is important for keeping your brain healthy.
Other Strategies to Thwart Dementia
While filling up your coffee mug every day may offer some protection, here are other important approaches to Alzheimer’s prevention.
Although caffeine looks promising and is easy to get, leading a lifestyle that includes a variety of brain-healthy practices is your best bet.