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Researchers spill the beans on caffeine and heart health

Research 19 May 2020
Coffee 1000

Drinking up to four cups of filtered coffee a day could reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease.

How you brew your coffee – filtered or unfiltered – could play an important part in the health of your heart, according to researchers in Norway.

Cardiovascular disease, an umbrella term that includes heart, stroke and blood vessel diseases, is one of Australia’s largest health problems. It accounts for one in four of all deaths here, according to the Heart Foundation, and claims the life of one person every 13 minutes.

We have known for years that smoking, blood pressure and cholesterol levels are big risk factors for heart disease, but the medical jury has been out on the pros and cons of drinking coffee. Since it was introduced more than 500 years ago, coffee has been variously claimed as a remedy for any disorder – including the plague – and the cause of all evil.

Coffee remains the most widely consumed beverage in the world. This latest study highlighting its possible heart health benefit will come as music to the ears of the many people in Australia who love their coffee. The coffee industry was estimated to be worth nearly $8.5 billion in 2018, according to Statista, a provider of market and consumer data.

Over 20 years, the Norwegian researchers studied the brewing habits of more than 500,000 men and women aged 20-79 years to find out if their coffee-brewing habits had any impact on mortality. They were particularly interested in establishing if it had any effect on heart disease outside the usual risk factors such as smoking and high blood pressure and cholesterol.

Filtered coffee 1000

The study, published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology last month, found that drinking unfiltered coffee was linked to a higher number of deaths than filtered brews.

Coffee drip-brewed through a paper filter is referred to in the study as filtered, which also includes instant and decaffeinated coffee. Unfiltered coffee is made when the ground beans are allowed to directly simmer in close-to-boiling water. This includes espresso – the basis of lattes and cappuccinos – and French press (plunger) coffee.

One of the study’s surprising findings was that drinking 1-4 cups of filtered coffee a day was associated with fewer deaths than drinking no coffee at all.

The researchers suggested that the benefit of drinking filtered coffee may be due to the antioxidants it contains. These include polyphenols, which are micronutrients that can help treat cardiovascular disease as well as other conditions.

While unfiltered coffee also contains polyphenols, it also contains more potentially harmful substances than filtered coffee. Researchers found that, compared to filtered coffee, a portion of unfiltered brewed coffee contained about 30 times the concentration of kahweol and cafestol, compounds which can increase cholesterol and, in turn, the risk of heart disease.

Professor of Medicine (epidemiology), emeritus University of Oslo, Norway, University of Gothenburg, Sweden, Dag S. Thelle, one of the study’s authors, advises people to “avoid unfiltered brew if you care about your total cholesterol level”.

“Otherwise coffee is not harmful with regard to your heart health,” Prof Thelle says. “But, as always, moderation.”

The findings have stirred the interest of Professor Yoshihiro Fukumoto, a leading Japanese heart specialist. To prevent major cardiovascular events – incidents that may cause damage to the heart muscle – he suggests drinking filtered coffee with each meal in addition to a controlled diet and physical activity.

Writing in the same journal, Prof Fukumoto, chairman of Cardiovascular Medicine at the Kurume University School of Medicine in Japan, blames an unhealthy lifestyle and obesity on most cardiovascular diseases.

He talks about the ‘cardiovascular-death domino’ chain of events that can begin with an unhealthy lifestyle. This can lead to obesity, which in turn can cause insulin resistance and lifestyle diseases such as high blood pressure (hypertension) and diabetes, followed by cardiovascular disease, cancer and, ultimately, death.

He believes caffeine can play a role in health management even after a cardiovascular event.

“Nutrition control, appropriate physical activity and optimum medical treatment should be continued, in which the consumption of filtered coffee should be 1–4 cups per day,” he says.

Find more information on women’s cardiovascular health.