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Drinking coffee is healthy, even if you have heart disease, studies find

The findings suggest daily coffee intake shouldn’t be discouraged, but rather included as a part of a healthy diet, researchers say.
Two to three cups of coffee a day seemed to be the "magic number" for health, the studies found.
Two to three cups of coffee a day seemed to be the "magic number" for health, the studies found.Getty Images/iStockphoto
/ Source: TODAY

There’s new evidence showing coffee offers health benefits, with two to three cups a day associated with a longer life, and a lower risk of heart disease and heart rhythm problems.

Those benefits applied to both people with and without cardiovascular disease, according to three studies to be presented at the American College of Cardiology’s Annual Scientific Session next month.

“Because coffee can quicken heart rate, some people worry that drinking it could trigger or worsen certain heart issues,” said Dr. Peter Kistler, the senior author and head of arrhythmia research at the Alfred Hospital and Baker Heart Institute in Melbourne, Australia, in a statement.

“But our data suggest that daily coffee intake shouldn’t be discouraged, but rather included as a part of a healthy diet for people with and without heart disease… We found coffee drinking had either a neutral effect — meaning that it did no harm — or was associated with benefits to heart health.”

Two to three cups a day is 'magic number'

The findings are based on data from about half a million people in a British medical database who were grouped by how much coffee they drank every day and then followed for 10 years.

“The biggest takeaway is just how comprehensive the study was,” said NBC senior medical correspondent Dr. John Torres on TODAY. “Those who drank that magic number — two to three cups of coffee for the most part — ended up not just having fewer heart problems, but less chance of dying over that 10 year period. They found it can be very, very good for you.”

Researchers wanted to see if healthy coffee drinkers went on to develop heart disease or stroke during the next decade; whether those who already had heart disease at the start had a higher risk of heart problems or death over the next 10 years; and whether it made a difference if someone drank instant or ground coffee, or caffeinated or decaf.

They found that for healthy people, drinking two to three cups of coffee a day offered the biggest benefit — it was associated with a 10% to 15% lower risk of developing heart disease, heart failure, heart rhythm problems or dying prematurely. But drinking less also offered health benefits — the risk of stroke or heart-related death was lowest among people who drank one cup of coffee a day.

For people who already had heart problems, drinking two to three cups a day was associated with lower odds of dying compared with abstaining. And drinking any amount of coffee was not associated with a higher risk of heart rhythm problems. People with atrial fibrillation who drank one cup of coffee a day were almost 20% less likely to die than non-coffee drinkers.

Caffeinated or decaf?

When it came to ground or instant, caffeinated or decaf coffee, researchers found lower rates of death for all coffee types. Here again, two to three cups a day seemed to be the magic number. However, decaf didn’t have protective effects when it came to arrhythmia, but did reduce cardiovascular disease, except heart failure.

“They found out caffeine gives you a little bit more — but not that much more — over decaf, so what the researchers are saying is if you’re a decaffeinated person, you don’t necessarily need to switch to caffeinated,” Torres said.

Tea has its own health benefits, he added, but in this study, the coffee was the focus and the star. Coffee beans have more than 100 biologically active compounds — flavonoids that can boost your health, he noted. They can help reduce inflammation, improve insulin sensitivity, boost metabolism, inhibit the gut’s absorption of fat and block receptors known to be involved with abnormal heart rhythms, Kistler said in the American College of Cardiology statement.

Previous studies have already found coffee can be part of a healthy lifestyle, reduces the risk of liver disease, and may reduce the risk of stroke and dementia.

Avoid drinking too much

The participants in the new studies self-reported how many cups of coffee they drank each day, but didn’t provide specific measurements, so for the most part it’s assumed to be 8 to 12 ounces of coffee per cup.

The downside of drinking two to three cups of coffee is that people who are sensitive to caffeine or have a sensitive stomach can experience problems, Torres cautioned. He also advised coffee drinkers to remember all the extra calories they’re ingesting with their brew — including cream, sugar and even whipped cream in more decadent options — can really add up and be unhealthy.

The health benefits also lessen when people drink too much. Previous studies have found drinking more than six cups of coffee a day was associated with a 53% increased risk of dementia and a smaller brain volume.

People who don’t drink coffee now shouldn’t start just because of this study, Torres said.