Researchers say some compounds found in coffee may help prevent plaque buildup. More study is needed, though.

Share on Pinterest
The Alzheimer’s Association suggests people should develop a “brain-healthy” lifestyle involving exercise, diet, and activities. Getty Images

Americans love their coffee.

More than 6 out of 10 of us reach for a cup every day and regular coffee drinkers average 2.7 cups daily.

So, it should come as good news to many that coffee consumption could have a neuroprotective effect, reducing a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease as well as Parkinson’s disease.

That’s according to a new study from researchers at the University of Toronto and the Krembil Research Institute in Canada.

Many prior studies have suggested a link between coffee consumption and a reduced risk of both Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. For this study, the researchers decided to dig a little deeper.

Specifically, they looked at how different compounds in three different kinds of coffee extracts — light roast, dark roast, and decaffeinated dark roast — affected the gathering of three compounds in the brain.

Those compounds are amyloid-beta and amyloid-tau, amino acids that appear in higher concentrations in people with Alzheimer’s disease as well as alpha-synuclein, a protein linked to the development of Parkinson’s disease.

The researchers found that a group of compounds called phenylindanes in coffee had a significant effect on preventing the two amyloids from clumping together in the lab.

These amyloid clumps, often referred to as plaques, are commonly considered a key indicator — and perhaps a cause — of Alzheimer’s disease, according to the National Institute on Aging.

Dark-roasted coffee extracts performed best against plaque formation, both in caffeinated and decaffeinated form, although all three extracts had some benefit.

More than just caffeine 

One of the more significant takeaways from the research is that the presence of caffeine didn’t appear to influence the effectiveness of coffee in inhibiting amyloid plaque formation.

Previous studies that looked at the effect of coffee on the development of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias often singled out caffeine, including one from the University of Florida in 2012 that found higher levels of caffeine in the blood of people who didn’t develop dementia compared to those who did.

This most recent study suggests the phenylindane compounds, created during the coffee bean roasting process, may be at play instead.

That finding could point to a potential treatment or prevention tool against Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s in the future.

These would be preferable because they occur in nature and wouldn’t have to be created synthetically, says Dr. Donald Weaver, a chemistry professor at the University of Toronto and a study co-author.

“Mother Nature is a much better chemist than we are and Mother Nature is able to make these compounds,” he said. “If you have a complicated compound, it’s nicer to grow it in a crop, harvest the crop, grind the crop out and extract it [rather] than try to make it.”

Should you drink more coffee? 

Will consuming more coffee actually reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease?

That’s difficult to say at this point.

“This is research in a dish,” Keith Fargo, PhD, director of scientific programs and outreach at the Alzheimer’s Association, told Healthline. “This is not a clinical trial of coffee. From the standpoint of the public, I want to make sure people don’t take away the thought ‘I should be drinking more coffee or darker coffee.’”

Weaver concurs.

“What this study does is take the epidemiological evidence and try to refine it and to demonstrate that there are indeed components within coffee that are beneficial to warding off cognitive decline,” he wrote in a press release. “It’s interesting but are we suggesting that coffee is a cure? Absolutely not.”

The fact is, there simply aren’t many randomized, controlled clinical trials — the so-called “gold standard” of research — on the effects of coffee consumption on dementias and Parkinson’s disease.

This is simply more suggestive evidence for the pile.

A holistic approach to brain health 

On the other hand, there’s a lot of suggestive evidence out there that drinking a moderate amount of coffee daily is pretty healthy.

And little evidence to suggest any harm to consuming a moderate amount of coffee (we’re talking moderate here: three to five cups, not two pots).

But instead of singling out coffee or any one piece of your health and habits, think of your brain health holistically, Fargo suggests.

“We think that what’s really developing in the scientific literature is this idea that a heart-healthy diet is also going to be a brain-healthy diet,” he said.

To that end, he pointed to the Alzheimer’s Association’s “10 Ways to Love Your Brain,” a compilation of suggestions for living a brain-healthy lifestyle based on existing research.

These include suggestions such as exercise, keeping your mind nimble with games, quitting smoking, and staying socially engaged, among others.

“Where we stand is less about any particular nutrient or chemical component in food and more about making wise eating choices in keeping yourself healthy as you age,” Fargo said.