21 February 2014

Caffeine, Health and Memory

Welcome back. One morning years ago, I’d guess at least 40, I suddenly felt my heart beating. My doctor quickly dispelled any notion of heart attack and asked how much coffee I’d been drinking. When I started counting pots not cups, he diagnosed heart palpitations caused by an overabundance of caffeine.
Warren’s pre-palpitations coffee intake.
(photo from multiple websites)

I’ve since reduced my caffeine intake and monitored caffeine-related health updates. After seeing so many mixed reports, I raised my half-downed coffee mug to the review in the Berkeley Wellness Letter.

Coffee Health Effects

The School of Public Health folks at the University of California, Berkeley, examined research to date on coffee consumption and… ready? ...diabetes; heart and liver disease; blood pressure and stroke; colon, prostrate and endometrial cancer; Parkinson’s disease; depression; cognitive decline; and life expectancy.

Conclusion: There is no health reason to not drink coffee if, of course, it doesn’t cause palpitations, insomnia, jitters, heartburn or the like.

Recognizing that the stimulant effects vary from person to person and with how regularly and how much you drink, they noted that the effects also depend on the amount of caffeine and other compounds in the coffee. Those vary with the coffee bean, how it’s processed and how the coffee is prepared. Unfiltered coffee, for example, can raise blood cholesterol.

Caffeine in coffee from various sources.
(photo from www.thrillist.com)

They didn’t recommend anyone start drinking coffee for its potential benefits, since long-term studies that showed benefits have been observational rather than cause and effect. They also advised pregnant women and anyone with multiple cardiac risk factors who wasn’t used to drinking coffee to go easy with coffee to play it safe.

Caffeine’s Long Term Memory Effect

One very recently reported potential benefit is improved memory. You’re not surprised? It’s probably not what you think. Having caffeine before you try to commit something to memory might make you more alert, yet research to date has failed to show that it helps you remember that something. The new study found that the caffeine has to come after not before you do the learning.

Investigators at Johns Hopkins University--the lab has since moved to the University of California, Irvine--tested 160 participants, who normally consumed little caffeine. Immediately after the participants studied a series of images, they were given either a caffeine pill (200 milligrams, the strength of about 2 cups of coffee) or a placebo. In a memory test 24 hours later, the participants were shown images that were either identical to, similar to or different from the images of the previous day.

Both groups of participants scored the same on identifying the identical and different images, but the “caffeinated” group scored significantly higher on the more difficult test of identifying similar images. Like slow-wave sleep discussed in my blog post Sleep and Memory, caffeine apparently consolidates the memories.

Wrap Up

A cat’s response. (photo from
I’ve been trying to figure how to take advantage of that finding. To fall asleep at night, I have to finish my industrial strength coffee early in the day and, at most, top it off with a cup of tea at lunch. It’s kind of tough to squeeze in everything I should remember that early.

Oh well, at my age, I need the morning jolt more than another memory. Thanks for stopping by.


Coffee and health review in Berkeley Wellness Letter:
Johns Hopkins research paper in Nature Neuroscience (lead author was an undergraduate!): www.nature.com/neuro/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nn.3623.html
Articles on Johns Hopkins research on New Scientist and Neuroscience News:

1 comment:

  1. I think I'd like to find some of that Deathwish coffee!
    Enjoyed the post -- Cassy