As scientists inch closer to figuring out what prevents dementia and Alzheimer's disease, one avenue leads to that morning cup of Joe.
It's likely that many complex factors influence the development of Alzheimer's — a neurodegenerative disease degrading a person's memory, personality and language skills, but scientists have found clues to halt its development.
In one paper in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, scientists looked at differences in transgenic mice given caffeine, regular coffee and decaffeinated coffee in their drinking water.
Previous findings from the same team suggest coffee may ward off dementia, but it wasn't clear whether the effects could be attributable to caffeine or some other compound found in coffee.
Neither caffeine alone nor a decaf version of the beverage provided the same protection as caffeinated coffee. Researchers found that caffeine interacted with an unknown compound in coffee to increase blood levels of a growth factor called GCSF, which helps create neurons in the brain.
Individuals living with the disease have lower levels of GCSF, and other animal studies have shown treatments with the growth factor to improve memory.
Since the mice in the experiment had been triggered to develop Alzheimer's symptoms, they were projected to show a decrease in the GCSF. But mice receiving coffee with caffeine showed higher levels of GCSF and performed better at working memory tests — something not observed in the other groups.
No cure for Alzheimer's exists, but identifying the compound in coffee that interacts with caffeine to create this added protection against Alzheimer's would be useful in developing treatments.
The findings bode well for mid-aged and older coffee (not decaf) lovers, but there's reason to be cautious. First, the results were observed in mice that consumed high amounts of the stuff — the human equivalent to four to five cups per day. Also, the team doesn't claim to provide a sure method to prevent the disease.
"We are not saying that daily moderate coffee consumption will completely protect people from getting Alzheimer's disease," said lead researcher Chuanhai Cao in a University of South Florida press release. "However, we do believe that moderate coffee consumption can appreciably reduce your risk of this dreaded disease or delay its onset."
Though results have been mixed about coffee's effects on human health, the research contributes to a growing body of evidence showing the beverage may not be that bad after all.
Alzheimer's disease affects 5.1 million Americans and a total of 18 million people worldwide, according to the National Institutes of Health and the World Health Organization. Staying active — both physically and mentally — is also known to reduce the chances of developing Alzheimer's.