Alzheimer’s disease and other kinds of dementia can be devastating. Researchers are looking for treatments and lifestyle choices that may prevent, slow, or lessen the likelihood of serious dementia. Some epidemiological research in humans and other studies of animals has suggested that consumption of coffee or caffeine may help protect against the development of Alzheimer’s disease. A 2012 study by Arendash et al. published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease sought to clarify the connection between coffee and cognitive status. The researchers also collected data on biomarkers in blood.
In patients with mild cognitive impairment, those patients whose blood levels of caffeine were 1200 ng/mL or higher (an amount that would result from drinking 3–5 cups of coffee daily) did not develop dementia during the following two to four years, while half of those whose blood levels of caffeine were below this threshold did. Moreover, those patients who had mild cognitive impairment at the beginning of the study had lower levels of caffeine than those who had normal cognitive functioning at that time.
Patients with mild cognitive impairment who later developed dementia had low levels of three biomarkers in their blood—the neurotrophic factor granulocyte colony-stimulating factor (G-CSF), the anti-inflammatory cytokine IL-10, and the pro-inflammatory cytokine IL-6. This suggests that low levels of these biomarkers may be an indicator of impending Alzheimer’s disease. G-CSF, in particular, has shown beneficial effects on cognition in mice.
Since half of patients with lower levels of caffeine did not develop dementia, it is clear that caffeine is far from being the only factor that could affect cognitive functioning. Arendash suggested that other factors may include levels of cognitive and physical activity, hypertension (high blood pressure), and antioxidant intake, especially from fruits and vegetables.
Editor’s Note: This study of caffeine was not randomized and is subject to other interpretations. For example, people who drink less coffee may have more hypertension, which is associated with dementia risk. However, the study does raise the possibility that caffeine could have positive effects on the brain (especially if it does not make a patient anxious or insomniac).
The caffeine findings are also supported by studies of dementia in mice. Long-term administration of caffeine to these animals resulted in a similar biomarker profile and prevented cognitive impairment.
Other treatments may also be useful in preventing cognitive decline. In BNN Volume 16, Issue 5 from 2012, we wrote about a one-year prospective study published by Forlenza et al. in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2011 that showed that lithium at the small dose of 150mg per day reduced the rate of cognitive decline in those with mild cognitive impairment compared to placebo.