What is your biggest fear about aging? Many people worry about loss of independence, whether they imagine that due to lack of mobility or due to cognitive decline. As a result, many baby boomers and other older people are interested in finding a way to maintain their brains. Studies suggest that people who drink coffee maintain their cognitive function better. But not everyone can tolerate coffee. Will decaf coffee help?
How to Maintain Your Mental Edge:
Q. I’ve read that coffee can assist in staving off dementia. Since I am 70 years old and still have most of my mind, this is of interest.
However, documentation and experience indicate that caffeine aggravates my leaky bladder. My symptoms have markedly decreased since I totally gave up coffee and caffeinated soft drinks. Can I get dementia protection from decaffeinated coffee?
Coffee Against Dementia:
A. At least one study has linked higher-than-average caffeine consumption to a lower-than-average risk of dementia (Driscoll et al, Journals of Gerontology, A, Sept. 27, 2016). This was an observational study rather than a controlled clinical trial, though, so we can’t infer a cause-and-effect relationship.
Another epidemiological study found that people in Taiwan were less likely to develop dementia if they ate fish and vegetables or drank tea or coffee (Lee et al, Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease, 2017). An earlier study showed, however, that coffee (not caffeine) offered modest protection against dementia (Shukitt-Hale et al, Age, Dec. 2013). These studies don’t include enough lovers of decaf coffee to tell whether it too is beneficial for the brain.
Will Decaf Coffee Protect the Brain?
You are not the only one who is interested in this problem. We heard from another reader with similar concerns.
Q. I read your column about coffee being helpful against dementia. Does decaf also help?: I only drink decaf, whole bean, and grind my own.
A. Caffeine is not the only compound in coffee that may help protect the brain. Other potentially beneficial chemicals include caffeic acid, quercetin, chlorogenic acid and trigonelline (International Journal of Molecular Sciences, Dec. 24, 2020). This suggests that even decaf coffee might be beneficial.
What Else Might Help?
Coffee contains a number of compounds other than caffeine. Despite the similar name, caffeic acid is not caffeine. This compound is found not only in coffee, but in many other foods, such as tomatoes, carrots and berries. Laboratory research suggests that caffeic acid may also be protective in rats with a condition like Alzheimer disease (Wang et al, Neurobiology of Aging, Oct. 2016). Some scientists believe that this and related compounds can help reduce inflammation in the brain and slow the accumulation of toxic beta-amyloid (Habtemariam, Mini Reviews in Medicinal Chemistry, 2017).
Quercetin, a compound that appears to be neuroprotective, is found in apples, onions, capers, tea and red wine as well as coffee (Lee, McGeer & McGeer, Neurobiology of Aging, Oct. 2016). According to this review, quercetin is the major component of coffee responsible for its activity against Alzheimer disease. In one recent study of old, memory-impaired rats, a combination of quercetin, silymarin and naringenin improved brain chemistry and function (Sarubbo et al, Journal of Neuroimmune Pharmacology, March 2018).
You probably don’t want to take milk thistle to provide you with silymarin, and you might not be excited about grapefruit as a source of naringenin. However, with so many potential sources of quercetin, you shouldn’t hesitate to enjoy decaf coffee as well as tart cherries, dark berries, apples, peppers, onions, leafy green vegetables, crucifers like broccoli and cabbage and even an occasional glass of red wine.
A recent study suggest that a hot water extract of kelp and bladder wrack seaweed improved some tests of cognitive function (Haskell-Ramsay et al, Nutrients, Jan. 2018). That was a short-term effect rather than long-term protection, however. You could adopt seaweed soup as your morning beverage instead of decaf coffee, though we don’t know how many people would find that appealing.
To learn more about warding off dementia, you may want to listen to our interview with Dr. Dale Bredesen on how to prevent or reverse Alzheimer disease.