At the Coffee Table

Longer Lives for Coffee Drinkers: Coffee Is Medicine?

The theme is a meme. Food is medicine. Exercise is medicine. Now yet again, a big study tells us that people who drink coffee live longer. So should we be on the lookout for a coffee is medicine campaign, funded by big java?

Gosh, we hope not.

Another Large Observational Study

Stirring this subject up once again is a big observational study in the Annals of Internal Medicine. Dan Liu and colleagues used data from the UK Biobank to examine the relationship between coffee drinking habits and mortality. The study followed 171,616 persons with a median age of 56 years for an average of seven years.

They collected data on self-reported coffee-drinking habits, as well as a variety of lifestyle, social, demographic, and clinical factors. The data allowed them to look at instant or ground, regular or decaffeinated coffee. Unsweetened, sugar sweetened, and artificially sweetened coffee all received separate looks as well.

The UK Biobank is a great playground for data scientists.

A 30 Percent Reduction in Mortality with Moderate Coffee Drinking

The bottom line is really straightforward. Researchers found a u-shaped curve to describe the relationship between drinking coffee and the risk of mortality. The sweet spot lies between one and four cups per day. People in this range were less likely to die – by about 30 percent – than people who drank more or less coffee than them.

This was equally true if people sweetened their coffee with sugar or didn’t sweeten it at all. For folks using artificial sweeteners, the picture was fuzzier. Not negative, just inconclusive.

These findings are consistent with quite a bit of literature linking moderate coffee drinking to health benefits.

Pleasure Is Pleasure, Not Medicine

So does this mean that coffee is medicine? Most certainly not. For one thing, let’s remember that coffee is a complex brew with a mixture of substances that have biological and sensory effects. Enjoying coffee is itself a pleasurable experience. For many people it’s part of daily rituals that bring pleasure and renewal. Those rituals can be very different – a morning cup with breakfast, a break in a workday, an occasion for enjoying a dessert or the company of a loved one. The possibilities cover quite a range.

So at the end of the day, we have an association of a pleasurable beverage with seemingly better health. Is it the beverage? Or the enjoyment of that beverage?

We don’t really care. Because coffee is a modest source of pleasure, not medicine. Likewise, food is nourishment and exercise is joyful movement. Medicine is medicine. Let’s not confuse these things.

Click here for the study in Annals, here for a companion editorial, here for further reporting, and here for additional perspective.

At the Coffee Table, painting by Edvard Munch / WikiArt

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June 10, 2022

2 Responses to “Longer Lives for Coffee Drinkers: Coffee Is Medicine?”

  1. June 10, 2022 at 9:57 am, Sossity Fair said:

    Was this study indeed funded by the coffee inudstry?

    • June 10, 2022 at 11:32 am, Ted said:


      It was funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the Young Elite Scientist Sponsorship Program by CAST, by Guangdong Basic and Applied Basic Research Foundation, and by Guangdong Province Universities and Colleges.