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Two studies were released earlier this week regarding the health benefits of coffee.

SALT LAKE CITY — Two studies published by the Annals of Internal Medicine last week suggest that coffee consumption has been “associated with reduced risk for death.”

Here's what you need to know about the studies, including questions the Deseret News posed to Dr. Richard Gilroy, medical director of the liver transplantation program at Intermountain Medical Center, as well as Dr. Julie M. Metos, associate chair of the Department of Nutrition and Integrative Physiology at the University of Utah, regarding the studies' implications.

  • The first study surveyed more than 520,000 people in 10 European countries and concluded that coffee drinking is associated with reduced risk for death from various causes.
  • Meanwhile, a second study examined the association of coffee consumption with risk for total or cause-specific death in the lives of more than 185,000 people in non-white populations in Hawaii and Los Angeles.
  • The second study agreed with the first study in finding that higher consumption of coffee was associated with lower risk of death in the case of those surveyed, even if the coffee is decaffeinated.
Much discussion has followed, including many discussions regarding caveats about the study itself, and a push by others to focus not on coffee, but on the nation's burgeoning obesity crisis.

One of the study's authors, Marc Gunter, acknowledged that the study might be attributing causation without taking into account other aspects of the participant’s lifestyle, according to CNBC.

“It is plausible that there is something else behind this that is causing this relationship,” Gunter said. “I wouldn’t recommend people start rushing out drinking lots of coffee, but I think what it does suggest drinking coffee certainly does you no harm.”

  • It doesn’t take into account the financial situation of coffee drinkers as opposed to non-coffee drinkers. “It might be that people who can afford three cups of coffee a day are richer and that extra money, in some way, helps protect their health,” BBC’s Smitha Mundasad wrote.
  • It is unclear whether people who avoid coffee do so because of pre-existing medical conditions.
  • Those who drink coffee might spend more time socializing, which would contribute to their well-being.
  • The BBC points out that while the study did include a large number of people, “the researchers excluded anyone who had diabetes, heart attacks or stroke” from the start.
  • In exploring the study, the largest to date on the subject, professor Sir David Spiegelhalter told the BBC that “if the estimated reductions in death really were down to coffee, then an extra cup of coffee every day would extend the life of a man by around three months and a woman by around a month on average.”

Is this a new development?

While this is certainly a new study, Metos of the University of Utah says it simply reaffirms what doctors have believed in recent years in terms of its being beneficial for health, but she says she “wouldn’t be impressed by living three months longer as an individual.”

“It probably isn’t you should start drinking coffee if you don’t,” Metos said. “And it probably doesn’t mean you should quit drinking coffee if you do, but it reinforces what we’ve known for the last few years, which is that coffee has some health benefits.”

Does this study reflect a flip-flop?

CNN reports that the debate regarding the health benefits of coffee dates as far back as the 1500s when it was reported that patrons of coffeehouses were “said to be more likely to gamble and engage in ‘criminally unorthodox sexual situations,’” according to author Ralph Hattox. Since then, headlines have ranged from the positive: “Coffee helps you work longer” (1700s), “Coffee decreases risk of liver cancer” (2007), “Coffee reduces risk of stroke and prostate cancer” (2011) to the negative: “Coffee stunts your growth” (1916), “Coffee will give you bad grades, kids (1927), and the more scientific: “Coffee increases risk of urinary tract cancer” (2001), “Coffee and lung disease go together like coffee and smoking" (2010).

What do health professionals say about coffee?

“Those health benefits tend to be antioxidants,” Metos said of drinking about three cups of coffee a day. “It can increase your blood pressure for a little bit of time, it doesn’t increase hypertension but it can be a little energy boost to get moving in the morning or to get engaged in some type of activity, which can be a good thing.

“Another good side of coffee is oftentimes people in the United States, on average, don’t get enough calcium, so coffee can be a way of sneaking your calcium in.”

Are there dangers to drinking coffee?

Metos said that more than three cups of coffee a day can be cause for concern.

“Anyone who is drinking a lot more than that we look at it to see if that’s influencing them to eat a less healthful diet or decreasing their appetite. Sometimes in older people they drink a bunch of coffee or tea, it decreases their appetite and if they’re having problems with having a healthy weight, it can kind of decrease their appetite and when you’re already a skinny little elderly person that can be bad,” Metos said, adding that coffee can have similar effects on children as well as affect their concentration and growth.

Another concern related to coffee is the increasing popularity of coffee drinks as opposed to a simple cup of coffee.

“The things that aren’t so helpful about coffee are that coffee is usually packaged with sugar, and the rise of coffee drinks just anecdotally in Utah is pretty extreme,” Metos said. “People drink a lot of frappacinos and things from Starbucks where sometimes they don’t get decaf or sometimes not even any coffee in them but they have a lot of calories and fat and sugar and are more like a milkshake, so that would be a downside to coffee.”

Looking at Mormons

Gilroy said that Intermountain Healthcare is currently conducting a study related to this topic that will explore the population within the Utah Intermountain Area. The study will explore whether or not coffee consumption might have an impact on the fatty liver disease, the most common liver disease in the country. The Intermountain study will research one demographic that may not have been researched previously in relation to coffee: religion. Why? The study is being conducted in an area with a high population of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“Fifty- to 70-year-old people who are LDS rarely ever drink coffee,” Gilroy said. “But the LDS have a much healthier lifestyle in that they don’t smoke and they don’t drink and there are biases to this, so we’re trying to see whether coffee might be independently predictive.”

Time will tell whether their study reveals additional findings related to coffee consumption or the lack thereof in the lives of LDS Church members.

“Their leading a pretty healthy lifestyle gives them survival benefit over other people who don’t,” Gilroy said of Mormons. “Whether coffee may provide an additional benefit to life remains to be determined. … But at the end of the day, I may get you drinking coffee and the same thing may happen, so bottom line, everyone has a choice.”

Members of the LDS Church follow "The Word of Wisdom," scripture that promises both spiritual and physical blessings to those that faithfully adhere to its principles, including abstaining from tobacco, alcohol, coffee and tea.

Focus on weight

Gilroy and Metos both agree that there is a greater problem in Utah, one that deserves more attention than devoting time and attention to whether or not one should drink coffee, and that is the issue of obesity.

“To me, in liver disease, a greater way to offset any benefits of coffee would be to address the morbid obesity rates within the community, including within the LDS community … if it were me, I’d be focusing on the obesity rates and that element of lifestyle,” Gilroy said.

Metos has devoted her career to focusing on obesity and says her concern about caffeine and coffee as a registered dietician and nutritionist is “close to zero” where sugar and calorie intake are at the top of her list.

“If we were going to look at our community here,” Metos said, “we generally do as a population have a healthful lifestyle in many ways and we do have one of the lower rates in obesity in the country, which is common for mountain states, but we still have an increasing rate of overweight and obesity, and we do among our kids too.”

Metos, who is not LDS , said she has spent a lot of time speaking to LDS Church congregations and has noted one concern for the health of Latter-day Saints.

“My observation is that people use a lot of treats when they congregate to do things. I see a lot of cookies, candies and soda,” Metos said. “So I think it’s easy to sometimes say, 'Well, we’re not drinking caffeinated beverages, we’re trying to avoid them,’ but really, that’s the tip of the iceberg. I think what’s really happening in Utah is that we need to reach out to our kids and adults to talk about healthy nutrition and model it as well.”