Previously we reported that coffee and other caffeinated drinks may protect against Alzheimer’s disease by strengthening the blood brain barrier. A study, published earlier this year has found further evidence of the protective effect of caffeine on the brain by reporting a decreased risk of brain lesions associated with dementia amongst heavy drinkers of caffeinated beverages.
The study, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, involved 3494 men with an average age of 52 from the Honolulu-Asia Aging Study. At the beginning of the study, participants were questioned on their intake of coffee, tea, and colas, in order to determine caffeine intake levels. The participants were followed to death at which time a brain autopsy was carried out.
Although the researchers did not find a decreased risk of clinical dementia in heavy coffee drinkers, they did find that men in the top 25% of caffeine intake were 55% less likely to have brain lesions at death compared to the men in the bottom 25% for caffeine intake.
Brain lesions are the hallmark of various forms of dementia such as vascular denentia, Lewy body dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease. They occur when large groups of brain cells die prematurely, leaving large “holes” in the brain that are often filled with abnormal protein deposits. While the brain can compensate to a certain extent with brain lesions by forming new neuron network, the formation of large-scale lesions eventually results in the memory loss and decreases in cognitive function typically seen in those suffering from dementia.
The apparent lack of a statistically significant link between caffeine intake and clinical dementia despite a reduction in brain lesions could be due to the relatively small study size as only 226 men developed dementia over the course of the study. It is also possible that many of the lesions observed were small, and may not have resulted in a significant decline in cognitive function.
Other studies however have found a reduced risk of dementia in heavy coffee drinkers. A 2009 study, also published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found a 65% reduced risk of dementia in those who drank between 3 and 5 cups of coffee compared to individuals who drank 2 or less cups a day. The authors concluded that “Coffee drinking at midlife is associated with a decreased risk of dementia/AD later in life”.
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