The story focuses on a recent journal article in Nature Medicine, which identified specific genes and gene modules (or groups of genes) associated with inflammation in older adults. The story notes that inflammation is associated with a number of health problems. However, the story focuses on an aspect of the research which is not given much attention in the actual journal article. Namely, the journal article notes that researchers identified caffeine as having an inhibitory effect on one of the genes associated with inflammation. But the news story translates this as meaning that drinking coffee can slow down aging. That’s a stretch. The story also uses vague — and potentially overstated — language to infer that inflammation is the causal factor for a host of diseases. While many chronic diseases are associated with inflammation, there’s little conclusive evidence that lowering inflammation levels — or drinking coffee for that matter — will prevent these diseases.
People love finding out that there is something simple they can do to make themselves healthier. Even better, people love hearing that something they already do is actually beneficial to their health. So it’s easy to see why a reporter would be tempted to report this study as finding that drinking coffee can help ward off a variety of diseases. However, the story overreaches here, in a number of ways. The sample size involved in the caffeine-related part of the study was small, which the story doesn’t address; the role of caffeine was only addressed in regard to one of the relevant genes, which the story doesn’t address; and the story appears to overstate the role of inflammation in causing some diseases. Stories need to treat study findings — and their limitations — responsibly, in order to avoid the hype associated with back-and-forth reporting about what is and is not good for you.
The story doesn’t address cost. However, the story focuses almost exclusively on coffee consumption — and most readers can be assumed to be familiar with the cost of coffee. We’ll rate this as not applicable.
The story provides no numbers that would help readers grasp the size of the benefit offered by coffee. Instead, the story uses sweeping language that offers readers little real insight. For example: “older people with low levels of inflammation — which drives many, if not most, major diseases — had something surprising in common: they were all caffeine drinkers.” Or: “People who drank more than five cups of coffee a day showed extremely low levels of activity in the inflammatory gene pathway.” That second line is particularly unusual, since it’s not clear where it came from — the journal article doesn’t mention how many cups of coffee study participants drank per day. In fact, the closest the journal article comes is to note that “moderate coffee consumption may suppress systemic inflammation that is caused by inflammasome activation, which may account for its correlation with decreased mortality.”
Harms aren’t addressed at all — and there are potential harms associated with drinking, as the story says, “more than five cups of coffee a day.” As the Mayo Clinic notes: “Even among adults, heavy caffeine use [more than around four cups of coffee per day] can cause unpleasant side effects [including fast heartbeat and muscle tremors]….Some people are more sensitive to caffeine than are others. If you’re susceptible to the effects of caffeine, just small amounts — even one cup of coffee or tea — may prompt unwanted effects, such as restlessness and sleep problems.”
The story does not clearly describe the study for readers. It does not establish that the study was observational in nature, showing associations only, and therefore not capable of proving a cause and effect relationship between coffee consumption and inflammation. Perhaps more importantly, the study doesn’t make clear that it is difficult or impossible to draw conclusions that would apply to the general public from a study of only 114 individuals.
The story says that inflammation “drives many, if not most, major diseases.” Further, the story states that “diabetes, hypertension, heart problems, cancer, joint disorders and Alzheimer’s, are all believed to have inflammation in common.” There is some truth here. As a 2014 paper in Nature Reviews Drug Discovery notes, “The role of inflammation in the pathogenesis of type 2 diabetes and associated complications is now well established.” Similarly, inflammation is associated with some cancers. However, sweeping statements should be supported by solid evidence — and this one stretches the point. For example, the American Heart Association notes that “Although it is not proven that inflammation causes cardiovascular disease, inflammation is common for heart disease and stroke patients and is thought to be a sign or [sic] atherogenic response.” (Note: atherogenic describes something that tends to promote fatty plaque in the arteries.) So, is inflammation a risk factor for heart disease? Many doctors believe so. Does it “drive” heart disease? That depends on what “drive” means — inflammation hasn’t been shown to cause heart disease in itself. Lowering inflammation hasn’t been proven to prevent it. And that’s why vague language is so problematic when writing about health-related research. This is, in part, why the “disease mongering” category exists — to ensure that vague writing (not only blatantly incorrect writing) doesn’t lead to increased fears among readers who don’t fully understand the state of the research.
The story quotes only researchers associated with the study and does not tell readers who funded the work. In this case, all of the funding appears to come from well-regarded research institutions, such as NIH and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Input from third-party experts may have helped better place the findings in context.
There are a wide variety of drugs available to treat various forms of inflammation, none of which are addressed. In the context of treating inflammation to ward off disease, some drugs are particularly worth mentioning. For example, the National Cancer Institute notes that “Many studies have investigated whether anti-inflammatory medications, such as aspirin or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, reduce the risk of cancer. However, a clear answer is not yet available.” By the same token, given the story’s focus on coffee consumption, it might have been worth exploring other vehicles for caffeine consumption, such as tea or soda — particularly given that different caffeinated foods and beverages can include widely varying amounts of sodium, sugars or fats that can impact how “healthy” they are.
As with cost, it can be assumed that most readers are familiar with how to make or purchase coffee. We’ll rate this not applicable.
There is a significant body of work related to caffeine and various types of inflammation and inflammatory response. The story does not address that body of work at all. However, we do give the story credit for linking to a previous story that offered an overview of research on coffee consumption and health. However, that previous story was not focused on links between caffeine and inflammation.
The story does not appear to be based on a news release.