Bitter Brew: High Coffee Consumption Is Associated With Smaller Brain Volume

Brain Glitch Stress Disorder Concept

High coffee consumption is linked to smaller total brain volumes and a heightened risk of dementia.

It’s a favorite first-order for the day, but while a quick coffee may perk us up, new research from the University of South Australia shows that too much could be dragging us down, especially when it comes to brain health.

In the largest study of its kind, researchers have found that high coffee consumption is associated with smaller total brain volumes and an increased risk of dementia.

Conducted at UniSA’s Australian Centre for Precision Health at SAHMRI and a team of international researchers, the study assessed the effects of coffee on the brain among 17,702 UK Biobank participants (aged 37-73), finding that those who drank more than six cups of coffee a day had a 53 percent increased risk of dementia.

Lead researcher and UniSA PhD candidate, Kitty Pham, says the research delivers important insights for public health.

“Coffee is among the most popular drinks in the world. Yet with global consumption being more than nine billion kilograms a year, it’s critical that we understand any potential health implications,” Pham says.

“This is the most extensive investigation into the connections between coffee, brain volume measurements, the risks of dementia, and the risks of stroke — it’s also the largest study to consider volumetric brain imaging data and a wide range of confounding factors.

“Accounting for all possible permutations, we consistently found that higher coffee consumption was significantly associated with reduced brain volume — essentially, drinking more than six cups of coffee a day may be putting you at risk of brain diseases such as dementia and stroke.”

Dementia is a degenerative brain condition that affects memory, thinking, behavior, and the ability to perform everyday tasks. About 50 million people are diagnosed with the syndrome worldwide. In Australia, dementia is the second leading cause of death, with an estimated 250 people diagnosed each day.

Stroke is a condition where the blood supply to the brain is disrupted, resulting in oxygen starvation, brain damage, and loss of function. Globally, one in four adults over the age of 25 will have a stroke in their lifetime. Data suggests that 13.7 million people will have a stroke this year with 5.5 million dying as a result.

Senior investigator and Director of UniSA’s Australian Centre for Precision Health, Professor Elina Hyppönen, says while the news may be a bitter brew for coffee lovers, it’s all about finding a balance between what you drink and what’s good for your health.

“This research provides vital insights about heavy coffee consumption and brain health, but as with many things in life, moderation is the key,” Prof Hyppönen says.

“Together with other genetic evidence and a randomized controlled trial, these data strongly suggest that high coffee consumption can adversely affect brain health. While the exact mechanisms are not known, one simple thing we can do is to keep hydrated and remember to drink a bit of water alongside that cup of coffee.

“Typical daily coffee consumption is somewhere between one and two standard cups of coffee. Of course, while unit measures can vary, a couple of cups of coffee a day is generally fine.

“However, if you’re finding that your coffee consumption is heading up toward more than six cups a day, it’s about time you rethink your next drink.”

Reference: “High coffee consumption, brain volume and risk of dementia and stroke” by Kitty Pham, Anwar Mulugeta, Ang Zhou, John T. O’Brien, David J. Llewellyn and Elina Hyppönen, 24 June 2021, Nutritional Neuroscience.
DOI: 10.1080/1028415X.2021.1945858

International research partners include: Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia; University of Cambridge, England; University of Exeter, England, Alan Turing Institute, England.

40 Comments on "Bitter Brew: High Coffee Consumption Is Associated With Smaller Brain Volume"

  1. While excessive coffee consumption might lead to dementia in a direct cause & effect way, a statistical research cannot prove that—there’s always a finite probability that the same cause that predisposes people to excessive coffee consumption predisposes them to dementia.

    While this report does not preclude the possibility that the paper it covers took this caveat into consideration, it certainly fails to mention it itself.

  2. I’d like to see it abstracted to diuretics. Is it losing neurons, or just not as juicy?

  3. Wait, does this be good thing or bad thing?

  4. The latest claim in what appears as a big decades-long argument.

  5. What is a “cup”? Such research should not use cooking recipe measures like “table spoon” and must be more specific, like 500 ml.

    • Measurement Mike | August 1, 2021 at 3:37 pm | Reply

      A Cup is a measument just like a tablespoon is… A Cup is 250ML. A Tablespoon is 15ml…

      • It gets weird with tea and coffee since it’s allowed to skirt the world of standardized measurements. Clothing sizes are probably more accurate and beer sizes definitely are.

  6. Is it really coffee that does this? I wouldn’t explicitly rule it out since caffeine does affect the brain directly, but like Dov I Elyada said, what if there’s something that predisposes high coffee drinkers to drinking this much? Say, lack of sleep? That could certainly reduce brain volume and potentially lead to dementia and stroke.

  7. Carolyn D Cavanaugh | July 31, 2021 at 6:10 am | Reply

    Was this based on non-smokers and smokers because if you smoke and drink coffee yet the wrist will be higher

  8. Or does early dementia lead to increased coffee consumption?

  9. Is this coffee in general or caffeine consumption? Some coffee can contain higher amounts, also other beverage’s contain caffeine.

    • Surprisingly, decaf coffee isn’t much of a diuretic so that’s out. It’s most likely the caffeine but I would like the study to be run with both decaf and vivarin to narrow it.

  10. Maurício Luz | July 31, 2021 at 6:44 am | Reply

    The authors of ghe paper do mention the possibility of a lack of causative effect:
    “While our study cannot confirm underlying causality of association, these result warrant carefully controlled studies to clarify the beneficial and adverse effects of coffee on the brain.”
    They say that further experimental studies ate needed.

  11. Agreed with some comments above, this is correlation, not causation. Six cups is a lot (even figuring for the vagueness of the term “cup” and the fact that the data will have been self-reported and collected by multiple data collectors), I’d have to guess that stress might be a confounding factor for both brain size and dementia. More work needed…frustrating to see this kind of study reported as if it proves any causal link. This comes from someone who recently quit coffee for different health reasons…

  12. There is no correlation between brain size and intelligence. FWIW.

  13. That means everybody in my hometown Colombia suffers from dementia? Lol, we’ve been drinking coffee-expresso! For ever and big quantities and never even heard of that desease.
    This is absurd

  14. Why do people drink a lot of coffee? To compensate for sleep deprivation. What does sleep deprivation cause? Dementia. Duh.

  15. Steve Lussing | July 31, 2021 at 7:51 am | Reply

    Drinking six cups of coffee every day will surely lead to pancreatic cancer. That link was established over fifty years ago.

  16. Giorgio Totarella | July 31, 2021 at 8:23 am | Reply

    Well, it could also be possible that one’s increases coffee consumption because of lower brain performance. What I mean is that more tiredness and less mental clarity (associated with dementia or whatever degradation of brain performance) is the cause of higher stimulant consumption. So dementia (and similar) is pushing people to rely on coffee for daily activity and work. What’s you opinion about this?

  17. What I didn’t see is any mention of decaf. Is it coffee overall or just caffinated coffee that affects the brain?

  18. I drink fresh ground organic coffee. They do not differeentiate between organic coffee, or coffee with no additives. I drink it fteshly brewed at home once a day.

  19. Was this study done using *organic* coffee? Because coffee that is *not* organic has some of the highest pesticide content of any food.

    How smart do you have to be to consider that when doing such a study?

  20. What effect did the cream and sugar used in the coffee have in this study?

  21. I wonder why coffee has this result. Is it the caffine or is it because it doesnt hydrate you good and people that drink that much coffee doesn’t drink enough water? Is it just pure speculation because most of these people are also heavy smokers? How can you do a study like this and not have clearer answerers?

  22. Stating that “Drinking six cups of coffee every day will surely lead to pancreatic cancer. That link was established over fifty years ago.” is unsupported by neither data or logic.And the “link” is in fact a list of several hundred people who have either died of or had pancreatic cancer…nothing about coffee.
    Here is a meta analysis (detail thereof) of 14 cohort studies of the coffee/pancreatic cancer relationship:
    ” Fourteen studies met the inclusion criteria, which included 671 080 individuals (1496 cancer events) with an average follow-up of 14.9 years. Compared with individuals who did not drink or seldom drank coffee per day, the pooled RR of pancreatic cancer was 0.82 (95% CI: 0.69-0.95) for regular coffee drinkers, 0.86 (0.76-0.96) for low to moderate coffee drinkers, and 0.68 (0.51-0.84) for high drinkers. In subgroup analyses, we noted that, coffee drinking was associated with a reduced risk of pancreatic cancer in men, while this association was not seen in women. These associations were also similar in studies from North America, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific region.

    CONCLUSION: Findings from this meta-analysis suggest that there is an inverse relationship between coffee drinking and risk of pancreatic cancer. link below to the article in its entirety:

  23. Cynthia Unachukwu | July 31, 2021 at 9:14 pm | Reply

    On the contrary, some studies have published that coffee/caffeine does offer healthy benefits as far the brain is concerned…..boosting memory and thinking skills. (Both long term and short term). Of course consider cutting off excess sugar and cream.

  24. Who released my brain scan with out my permission

  25. Einstein’s brain was smaller than average. He had more glilal cells than most. Coffee reduces folate and increases homocysteine; which, causes an array of issues such as dimentia if deficiency becomes chronic. Coffee is liver friendly unless it is in excess but too much of anything is too much.

  26. Everything in moderation.

  27. Michael Monoson | August 1, 2021 at 6:54 am | Reply

    “Everything in moderation, including moderation”. Oscar Wilde

  28. Was this adjusted for average sleep time as well? Lack of sleep itself has been shown to significantly increase risk of dimentia and decrease brain function, there seems to be a high correlation with chronic lack of sleep and chronic excessive caffeine ingestion. No mention of consideration of sleep patterns leads me to believe this study is as bunk as gas station coffee.

  29. Antonio Bragança Martins | August 1, 2021 at 11:39 am | Reply

    Considering a huge amount of false researchings about all around us nowadays, an its built-in commercial targets, I’m going take a big coffee right now!

  30. Measurement Mike | August 1, 2021 at 3:35 pm | Reply

    “Bekir | July 31, 2021 at 4:40 am | Reply
    What is a “cup”? Such research should not use cooking recipe measures like “table spoon” and must be more specific, like 500 ml.”

    A Cup is a measument just like a tablespoon is… A Cup is 250ML.

  31. I could say something fancy about correlation v. causation and people with cognative difficulty trying to self Medicate. But, I think it’s also likely to be the associated lack of sleep that really increases the risk.

  32. Coffee or caffeine? What is the exact substance in question?

  33. Fact ck by Lonnie what a bunch of BS

  34. Robert Leslie | August 2, 2021 at 1:23 pm | Reply

    Could I believe that if I switch to “decaf” my habitual pastime may be less harmful?

  35. Maybe bcoz australians drink coffee differently – Too concentrated? Deficient in other nutrients? Poor diet? Maybe even before drinking coffee, australians already have innate tendency towards dementia? Anyhow i refuse to believe results of this study.

  36. Charles W. C. | August 3, 2021 at 8:59 am | Reply

    The comments pro and con regarding coffee and pancreatic cancer overlooks my conclusion that breathing causes pancreatic cancer, stroke and dementia in some people.

  37. The comments section here, made by what appears to be concerned non-scientists and non-science writers is more thoughtful, instinctive and relevant than most other articles written on the subject of ‘too much’ coffee by scientists and those who regularly report on health matters. The fact is, most of what is written is parroted copy/paste hyper-generalizations. Most writers ignore a critical question that must be answered: What other substances in coffee beans besides caffeine wind up in a cup of coffee after beans have been roasted, ground up and soaked in hot water? Coffee is more than water and caffeine and any of a number of substances may be contributing to the effects of coffee–none of which are ever discussed or even noted to exist. Problems with the excess consumption of coffee, or the benefits of a moderate coffee habit may be attributed to these compounds and not just the caffeine component of a coffee bean.

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