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Stanford University School of Medicine

Drink for your heart: Caffeine may counter age-related inflammation, cardiovascular disease

There's a clear connection between chronological age, chronic inflammation, cardiovascular disease and... coffee consumption.

More than 90 percent of all noncommunicable diseases of aging are associated with chronic inflammation. And more than 1,000 papers have provided evidence that chronic inflammation contributes to many cancers, Alzheimer's disease and other dementias, cardiovascular disease, osteoarthritis and even depression.

It's also well known -- well, at least among the scientists who study this kind of thing -- that caffeine intake is associated with longevity. Now, Stanford immunologists David Furman, PhD, and Mark Davis, PhD, and their colleagues have revealed a likely reason why this may be so.

In a study published in Nature Medicine, the researchers conducted extensive analyses of blood samples, survey data and medical and family histories obtained from more than 100 human participants in a multiyear study. Their search (detailed in our news release about the study) revealed a fundamental inflammatory mechanism associated with human aging and the chronic diseases that come with it. In short, this mechanism becomes increasingly likely to kick into high gear as the number of candles on our birthday cake marches relentlessly toward infinity.

The study implicates this same inflammatory process as a driver of cardiovascular disease and increased rates of mortality overall. Metabolites, or breakdown products, of nucleic acids -- the molecules that serve as building blocks for our genes -- circulating in the blood can trigger this inflammatory process big-time, the study found. Injecting these substances into mice produced massive systemic inflammation, sent their blood pressure soaring and wreaked havoc with their kidneys, among other nasty consequences.

Intriguingly, caffeine and its own metabolites -- whose molecular structure, intriguingly, bears a strong family resemblance to the nucleic-acid metabolites -- blocked the abysmal action of the latter, possibly explaining why coffee drinkers tend to live longer than abstainers.

Now, the good news: Not all older people, as the study showed, are cursed with the age-related inflammatory hyperdrive discovered by the investigators. And when Furman, Davis et al. looked at the extremes -- older people with low levels of this type of inflammation were only one-eighth as likely as the high-level older people to have high blood pressure.  They were also eight times as likely to report having at least one close blood relative who had lived to the age of 90 or older. And of the people in the study who were 85 or more years old in 2008, when the long-term longitudinal study began, those with low levels of the identified type of systemic inflammation were substantially more likely to still be alive in 2016, eight years later.

And sure enough: The study participants with the lowest activation levels of the nasty inflammatory mechanism were the ones who, according to extensive questionnaires, reported the highest caffeine intake.

If that doesn't enable your coffee addiction, nothing will. Oh, and by the way, black tea and dark chocolate contain compounds similar to caffeine.

Previously: The biggest killer of them all: Inflammaging, Heart Beat: Advanced test of inflammation may be superiorpredictor of cardiovascular risk, Immunology escapes from the mouse trap and Mice to men: Immunological research vaults into the 21st century
Photo by Zach Inglis

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