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In Your Cups: Caffeine and Dementia

For at least a decade, now, researchers have been studying the connection between coffee consumption and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Since attempts to find a drug-based cure for dementia have not turned up any positive results so far, researchers have been looking at dietary interventions that might aid in the treatment of age-related cognitive impairments and the decline of mental acuity in the elderly.

A large study published in 2007 conducted in Holland, Finland, and Italy over a period of 10 years showed that moderate coffee consumption (that is, 3 cups a day) slowed down the progression of dementia in elderly men, whereas low consumption and high consumption did not produce the same beneficial results. A 2008 study from China and a 2014 study from Japan revealed that regular consumption of green, black, and red tea can lower the risk of developing age-related decline in mental acuity. The common element in these studies is, of course caffeine.

Caffeine has also been shown to play a beneficial role in Parkinson’s disease. A Canadian study, conducted by a research team at McGill University over six weeks and published in 2012, found that caffeine taken regularly over the six-week period markedly improved the motor functioning of Parkinson’s patients. An earlier study, conducted in 2000 by researchers at the Mayo Clinic, found that the coffee drinkers in their study developed Parkinson’s on average 8 years later than the non-coffee drinkers.

One may well ask what exactly it is about caffeine that causes it to produce the effects on age-related mental decline observed in the studies mentioned above. Research has shown that caffeine reduces inflammation and prevents the accumulation of beta-amyloid plaques around brain cells, both of which are now well accepted as major contributors to the development of Alzheimer’s. Caffeine stimulates the production of cerebrospinal fluid and the flow of blood in the brain. A decline in the production of cerebrospinal fluid has been associated with the accumulation of beta-amyloid plaques in the brain, which, as mentioned above, are now believed to be the main cause of Alzheimer’s. Coffee also contains a polyphenol antioxidant known as ferulic acid. This compound is known to reduce inflammation and prevent the loss of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine in the outer layer of the brain, known as the cerebral cortex.

It must be remembered that excessive coffee drinking can raise blood pressure and thus increase the risk of stroke and heart attack. There is a close relationship between stroke and dementia: a high percentage of stroke patients have some degree of cognitive impairment or full-blown dementia. Hence, the point to be noted; only moderate coffee consumption (3 cups a day) can be beneficial in reversing the effects of dementia and in preventing its development if it is not already present. As in everything, moderation is the key when it comes to using caffeine as a possible treatment for Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.

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