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How Coffee May Help Prevent Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s

Smiling senior man sitting at a table outside on his patio working online with a laptop and drinking a cup of coffee

For most of us, the thought of going a day or two at work without a cup of coffee is almost unbearable. We would most likely have trouble getting anything done in the workplace and even something as simple as a smile or a kind word would require much effort on our part. The smallest problems would become magnified and sitting through a long meeting would wear us out. Simply put, we can’t be ourselves without coffee to help us get through a difficult day.

Coffee doesn’t just brighten up our day and improve our productivity. According to many studies conducted over the past few decades, it positively impacts our health in a variety of ways. For instance, did you know that it helps to lower the risk of both type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease? Even the World Health Organization has recognized the positive health benefits of coffee, designating it as a drink  that could help prevent cancer of the liver and the uterus.

One of the most important health-related findings of coffee is that it can protect against neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. In this article, we’re going to specifically focus on this discovery.

How Does Alzheimer’s Disease Affect The Brain?

As you may already know, our brain starts to shrink to a certain degree as we reach our senior years. However, at the same time, the number of neurons in our brain remains more or less the same. In contrast, if you look at the brain of a person afflicted with Alzheimer’s, the amount of neurons is much less. Due to several reasons, the neurons stop functioning and proceed to die.

This doesn’t just happen in the areas of the brain responsible for memory. The sections that control important activities such as cell repair, metabolism, social behavior, and reasoning are affected as well. So instead of picturing Alzheimer’s as a disease that causes memory loss, like many of us do, think of it as a condition that progressively causes the brain to deteriorate, ultimately leading to death.

How Does Parkinson’s Disease Affect The Brain?

Parkinson’s disease mainly affects motor control in patients. This occurs because the condition lowers the amount of dopamine, a neurotransmitter present in our brains, to an unhealthy level. The way in which the disease progresses is quite complex but simply put, it continually attacks motor function pathways until the patient has difficulty even carrying out the simplest movements. So the afflicted person may start out by experiencing slight tremors and then develop full rigidity over the course of a decade or so.

Deaths caused by Parkinson’s are a result of the impairments affecting patients. For instance, difficulty swallowing may cause food to enter the lungs, ultimately resulting in infections such as pneumonia, which can be fatal. Some patients may even starve if feeding tubes are not employed to supply food to them. In addition, due to restricted motor control, Parkinson’s patients can die from injuries caused by a fall.

Coffee Versus Neurodegenerative Diseases

In joint research conducted by experts from the Krembil Research Institute and the University of Toronto, strong evidence showed that coffee could combat Neurodegenerative diseases. While a few preceding studies had already established this link, this particular study explored it in much greater depth.

During the course of their research, the experts focused on two specific amino acids: amyloid-tau and amyloid-beta, which are typically found in high levels in patients afflicted by Alzheimer’s disease. In addition to this, a protein called alpha-synuclein, found to play a role in causing Parkinson’s disease was present as well.

In patients with Alzheimer’s disease, amyloid-tau and amyloid-beta and are often found clumped together as ‘amyloid plaques’. Research conducted by the National Institute of Aging suggests that these plaques are one of the most telling signs and could even be one of the causes of the disease. While more research is required to understand exactly how amyloid plaques affect the development of Alzheimer’s, it is known that they accumulate between neurons and negatively impact the functions of cells.

‘So how does coffee help?’ you might be wondering. As per the joint study, phenylindanes – a group of compounds found in coffee, plays a major role in preventing amyloid-tau and amyloid-beta from clumping together and forming plaques. The research focuses on phenylindanes extracted from three different types of coffee roasts:  caffeinated dark, decaffeinated dark, and light.

According to the findings, even though all three types were able to act against the clumping, caffeinated and decaffeinated dark roasts were the most effective.

The Role Of Caffeine

Another factor that sets this study apart from others is that caffeine isn’t the centerpiece here. In fact, it contradicts previous studies which focused on the fact that a larger concentration of caffeine was found in the blood of those who did not develop dementia than in those that did. The findings show that caffeine levels don’t actually have any inhibitory effect on amyloid clumping. They instead pointed to phenylindanes – the group of compounds that form when coffee beans undergo roasting.

The researchers commented that this new finding could be a potentially big step in developing preventive medication for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s patients. The fact that this group of compounds is naturally occurring makes things a lot easier.

How Many Cups Of Coffee Should You Drink? 

Before you make a resolution to dump a dozen cups of coffee a day to prevent neurodegenerative diseases, you must understand that coffee isn’t actually a cure for Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. Dr. Donald Weaver, one of the co-authors of this study emphasises this. The findings simply suggest that there are components in the beverage that help prevent the functions of the brain from deteriorating. We have not yet reached the stage where a clinical trial can be conducted to test the therapeutic effects of coffee on neurodegenerative conditions.

Furthermore, the formation of amyloid plaques isn’t the only thing that occurs in the brain of a patient afflicted with Alzheimer’s. Therefore, finding a preventive solution for this won’t solve all the problems caused by the condition. The following changes also take place and therefore need to be addressed:

  • Chronic Inflammation – this occurs as a result of certain types of cells known as ‘glial cells’ building up in the brain. Typically, these glial cells clear away unwanted substances that linger in the brain, including the amyloid plaques that we talked about previously. Unfortunately, in patients with Alzheimer’s, glial cells don’t perform their functions and instead just keep accumulating. The reason for this hasn’t yet been confirmed by research.
  • Neurofibrillary Tangles – In healthy brains, tiny structures call microtubules partly support the structure of neurons (or nerve cells). In addition, a protein called tau helps the structure by binding with these microtubules to ensure that they remain stable. This occurrence is crucial, as it allows substances to be transported from one end of the neuron to the other.

With Alzheimer’s, however, tau does not bind to the microtubules and instead clumps together, blocking the passage of substances passing through the neurons. The result is that the neurons cannot communicate with each other. Thereby, certain important neural pathways will cease to function.

As to the question of how much coffee you should drink, the answer is ‘in moderation’. There are plenty of studies that suggest drinking coffee in moderation is actually great for your health. Generally, it is best not to exceed five cups a day, based on what current research shows.

Furthermore, while we’re on the subject of coffee drinking habits, we recommend switching to plain black if you haven’t already. While the taste might leave a lot to be desired, there’s no denying that it’s much healthier. For instance, while caffeine has been found to give our metabolic rates a boost and suppress our appetites, you’re not going to make any progress with weight loss if you douse each cup with sugar, milk or cream.

In Conclusion

Coffee has become an essential part of our day-to-day lives. It keeps us awake throughout the day, drastically improves our mood and even offers a host of amazing health benefits, as per research. The discovery that coffee can help prevent diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s is especially significant, as there is currently no definitive cure for either condition.

Both these conditions are neurodegenerative diseases which hinder patients from living normal lives. According to one particular study conducted by researchers from the Krembil Research Institute and the University of Toronto, phenylindanes (a group of compounds found in coffee), can help reduce the mechanisms that potentially give rise to these conditions.

However, it is important to keep in mind that coffee hasn’t yet officially been named a cure for either of these diseases. The findings are still merely suggestive. While the discovery of the role of phenylindanes is important for further research into developing a preventive tool, we have a long way to go until we know for certain that drinking coffee can help prevent brain disorders.

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