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Coffee and Conundrums

When you get to be my age, every new health study feels like something of a ruse. It’s not just because you get inured to the constant “this is good for you/no, now it’s bad for you” refrain so belabored in mainstream health reporting. At a certain age, you’ve settled pretty comfortably into a mix of healthy and semi-healthy patterns of behavior, and I don’t think I’m climbing out onto a limb to suggest that most of us just want those behaviors validated.

I can’t help but perk up, for instance, when I read about some study showing that wine consumption is going to keep me from suffering a heart attack and may even knock out those pesky free radicals that cause cancer. Or that 20 minutes of moderate exercise (like walking across the bridge to the office in the morning and back home again in the evening) is really all a geezer needs to do each day in order boost his immune system, fend off dementia and cure the common cold. I say, “Hey, I’m already doing that!” and I think, What brilliant research!

But, in fact, all I want is for somebody with some academic or professional credentials to tell me to keep on doing what I’m doing now and everything’s going to be hunky-dory. If it’s a randomized clinical study that validates my current lifestyle decisions, all the better. If not, who cares? Randomized clinical studies are overrated. This is all just human nature. I’m sure somebody’s done some research on this.

This all came up the other day, when I chanced upon an interview in the Journal of Caffeine Research (insert your own quip here about jittery editors) with Neal Freedman, PhD, MPH, the author of a new study showing that coffee drinkers live longer. I drink coffee very rarely; maybe once a month I’ll linger over a latté with My Lovely Wife at some coffee shop. I’m more of a chai guy. So Freedman’s study was obviously poorly designed, probably not randomized, and filled with biases. Funded by Folger’s, in all likelihood.

Freedman, as it turns out, works for the National Cancer Institute, and his study followed some 400,000 middle-aged people for 13 years. His team weeded out potential participants with cancer, heart disease, and other chronic diseases so as not to skew the results, and they surveyed them about their diet and various lifestyle behaviors, as well. What they found was that people who drank coffee had a 10–15 percent reduction in the risk of dying during the period they were studied. The more coffee you drank, the less likely you were to kick the bucket.

To my way of thinking, 15 percent is nothing to crow about. And then there’s this, from Freedman himself:

“Coffee drinking, in our study and in many other U.S. studies — though this may not be the case everywhere — was associated with many behaviors that are associated with poor health and with disease. Participants who drank coffee, they were more likely to smoke, they were more likely to drink a lot of alcohol, they were more likely to eat red meat, they were less likely to be physically active. All of those risk factors are usually associated with increased risk of death, which they were in our study too.”

Hmmm. I don’t smoke. I don’t drink a lot of alcohol (except wine, which we all know is good for us). I don’t eat a lot of red meat (except occasionally with a nice pinot noir). And I get at least 20 minutes of moderate exercise every day. So, I’m actually better off not drinking coffee. And I’m not going to die a tragic and premature death. In fact, everything’s going to be just fine.

Thoughts to share?

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