Caffeine boosts memory

Coffee break: caffeine “perks up” memory in older women, a study says.

Attention ladies of a certain age: a cup (or three) of java may do more than to help you wake up – it just might protect your memory.

A recent French study found that women aged 65+ who drank more than three cups of coffee per day – or the equivalent amount of caffeine found in tea – were 30 per cent less likely to have memory decline than women who drank one cup or less of coffee daily.

The findings, published in the August 7, 2007, issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, also showed that the benefits of caffeine appear to increase with age. Women over the age of 80 were 70 per cent less likely to have a failing memory.

For the study, researchers tested 7,000 women and men over a period of four years, taking into account other factors that might impact on memory such as age, education, depression, medication and chronic illness.

At the start of the study, all participants were dementia-free. Cognitive performance was evaluated by a series of tests including verbal recall where people were asked to demonstrate how many words they could repeat back after hearing them within 30 seconds. Evaluations were done at the start of the study and then two and four years later. At each evaluation participants were asked about caffeine consumption.

So how might caffeine help to boost memory? “It is a cognitive stimulant,” said study’s lead author, Dr. Karen Ritchie of INSERM, the French National Institute for Health and Medical Research. Caffeine also helps to reduce levels of the protein called beta amyloid in the brain, she said, whose accumulation is responsible for Alzheimer’s disease but which also occurs in normal aging.

More research needed
As to caffeine’s role into actually preventing dementia, Ritchie says more research is needed. “We need to continue this study for a further two years to better study the relation between caffeine and Alzheimer’s,” she said. “Caffeine consumption probably does not have a role on the onset of this disease but on its progression.”

The memory-enhancing effects of caffeine, while promising for women, seemed to have no effect on men – although researchers aren’t sure why. “It is possible that men and women metabolize caffeine differently or even that there is a hormonal interaction,” Ritchie said.

The buzz: the pros and cons caffeine
Despite a number of studies that suggest beneficial effects of caffeine (including a U.S. study that found that caffeine can improve sex drive in women), health experts say the stimulant has its downside. People who are caffeine sensitive, for example, can experience restlessness, anxiety, irritability and headaches.

It can also affect people with sleep disorders (caffeine tends to stay in your system from 3-8 hours) and can cause stomach irritability for people with gastrointestinal problems such as irritable bowel syndrome or ulcers. Scientists in Denmark found that pregnant women who drink eight or more cups of coffee a day run more than twice the risk of stillbirth compared with women who do not drink coffee.