Health News Review

The parade of stories about coffee preventing this or that disease continues. We wish there was more skepticism applied to these kinds of studies. And we wish such stories would remind readers that correlation does not equal causation.

Our Review Summary

The inclusion of some cautious expert comments at the end helped atone for some of the excesses higher up in this piece, but the overall message was still hazy at best. The story gives the same weight to recommendations from one of the study researchers, who advises drinking 3 cups of coffee a day to prevent Alzheimer’s, as it does to the independent expert, who says we can’t recommend coffee for Alzheimer’s prevention until we test it in a clinical trial. Whom should we believe?

Readers of this story who are concerned about mild memory loss in themselves or loved ones will likely come away with an imperative to consume more caffeine.  They would have been better served with a balanced piece including limitations of this study and observational research in general.


Why This Matters

People don’t have the time, money, or motivation to follow every recommendation they hear about that might benefit their health. Journalists should help guide readers toward solid advice based on quality evidence.  If journalists don’t raise the serious questions about efficacy or harm, how will people learn to filter stories such as this?


Criteria

Not Applicable

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Applicable

The cost of coffee is not in question.

Not Satisfactory

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

The story just had too many unsupported statements about the benefits of coffee to earn a satisfactory here. Examples:

  • Even though the study involved people over the age of 65 who already had memory problems, the story uncritically passes along a recommendation that people drink 3 cups of coffee a day starting in their late 30s.
  • The story claims that coffee “can reduce the risk of Parkinson’s disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and breast cancer”–  a statement that far exceeds the scientific proof for a benefit for these conditions.
  • The story claims we don’t know “exactly how coffee helps delay the development of Alzheimer’s” — suggesting that a benefit has already been proven and that we just need to clarify the mechanism. This is premature.
Not Satisfactory

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

Caffeine can cause anxiety, poor sleep, irritative bladder symptoms, palpitations, and even arrythmia.  Older people are at greater risk for each of these problems and should be aware of the adverse effects of caffeine, even at lower levels of intake.

Not Satisfactory

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Satisfactory

This was a case-control study, a design which sits near the bottom of the hierarchy of medical evidence because it is prone to bias. However, apart from the mild cautionary comments offered by the independent expert at the end of the story (“the jury is still out on how or if caffeine affects risk for Alzheimer’s”), there was no critical analysis of the study or possible limitations of the data. The story also repeatedly used cause-and-effect language (“Drinking Coffee May Delay Alzheimer’s Disease”) to describe the benefits of coffee for prevention of Alzheimer’s and other diseases, when the available evidence doesn’t support these assertions.

Satisfactory

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

No disease-mongering of Alzheimer’s disease.

Satisfactory

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?

Satisfactory

An independent expert injects some important cautionary notes, We wish this perspective had been featured more prominently, and that more experts had been consulted.

Not Satisfactory

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

There aren’t any proven strategies to reduce Alzheimer’s risk. However, there are a number of lifestyle factors — exercise, healthy diet, etc.– that have at least as much evidence to support them as coffee. The story could have mentioned these.

Not Applicable

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Applicable

The availability of coffee is not in question.

Satisfactory

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Satisfactory

The independent expert notes that there are other studies supporting a possible beneficial effect of coffee on Alzheimer’s disease.

Satisfactory

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?

Satisfactory

The story did not rely excessively on this press release put out by the University of South Florida.

Total Score: 4 of 8 Satisfactory


Comments

Kip Hansen posted on June 15, 2012 at 6:58 pm

WebMD, in my opinion, is one of the worst sources of medial and health information — particularly when covering these types of studies. No matter what the correlation, no matter how small the study, they make recommendations (sometimes explicit as in this example, sometimes implied) to their readers.

Reply

Henry posted on June 18, 2012 at 9:39 am

I’ve read that for many people on the SAD (standard American diet), coffee is their major source of antioxidants. Maybe that’s why coffee is good for them – not the caffeine. Even in Japan.

Reply

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