Behind the headlines: Can a cup of coffee a day prevent heart disease?

Drinking a cup of coffee a day can help prevent heart disease, according to newspaper reports.

Antioxidant levels in Greek coffee may explain the study's results (Photograph: istock)
Antioxidant levels in Greek coffee may explain the study's results (Photograph: istock)

Greek researchers found elderly hypertensive patients who drank one to two cups of coffee a day had improved elasticity of blood vessels around the heart, a predictor of cardiovascular events.

The data, presented at the European Society of Cardiology meeting in Stockholm in August, also suggested coffee intake can reduce incidence of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, among other effects.

How significant are the results?
Previous studies had provided conflicting evidence for the effect of coffee consumption on cardiovascular health.

It was thought that coffee drinking might have contributed to longevity in the population of Ikaria, where a third of residents reach 90 years old.

Researchers from the University of Athens studied 235 hypertensive participants aged 65-100. They used a formula to calculate patients' aortic distensibility, a measure of blood vessel elasticity.

The results were then adjusted for age, gender, BMI and other lifestyle factors.

Study lead Dr Christina Chrysohoou concluded: 'The study revealed that moderate coffee consumption is associated with higher values of aortic distensibility when compared with other hypertensive elderly individuals taking smaller quantities of coffee.'

However, the data showed only a weak relationship between coffee intake and aortic distensibility. Along with the evidence for effects on prevalence of diabetes, lower BMI and cardiovascular disease, this finding may have been confounded by the small sample size.

The study only examined the effect in elderly people with hypertension, meaning the findings may not be applicable to younger people.

Should patient advice change?
The authors suggested that the beneficial effects claimed in the study were due to the high levels of antioxidants present in Greek coffee.

These include polyphenolic compounds, which are linked to increased bio-availability of nitric oxide in the blood. This relaxes the smooth muscle lining and increases blood flow.

However, the authors concede that this process is impaired in hypertensive patients, so antioxidant levels in coffee may not be strong enough to offer a protective effect.

Professor Jeremy Pearson, associate medical director for the British Heart Foundation, was sceptical about the findings.

'Living the Greek lifestyle and eating the Greek diet is certainly good for you as long as you don't smoke the Greek cigarettes,' he said.

'However suggesting that your average flustered executive in a British office should drink strong coffee to reduce their BP is nonsense.'

Informing patients
  • Moderate coffee intake may increase blood vessel elasticity in hypertensive patients over 65, but the cause is unclear.
  • The findings may be due to attributes found only in Greek coffee, such as high levels of antioxidants, or to other aspects of Greek island life.
  • Further evidence may be needed to prove the link as the sample size was small.

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