The Changing Paradigm of Caffeine

A recent study in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease added to the data about caffeine and other stimulants as memory aids. The study, in the July 2009 issue of the journal, found that "Alzheimer’s disease (AD) transgenic mice given a moderate level of caffeine intake (the human equivalent of five cups of coffee per day) are protected from development of otherwise certain cognitive impairment." Even mice that already showed cognitive impairment "exhibited vastly superior working memory compared to the continuing impairment of control transgenic mice." Because mice with both the pre-existing condition and those showing signs of cognitive decline "exhibited memory restoration and reversal of AD pathology" the study concludes that there may be "treatment potential of caffeine in cases of established AD."

These findings build on earlier scientific study results published in the January 2002 issue of Psychological Science by the American Psychological Society. In that caffeine-memory study, researches found that the stimulant effect of caffeine can improve memory. The study took as its base earlier findings that memory in seniors is often at its best early in the day. As the day ticks by, seniors' memory abilities decline, with the most confusing moments culminating at the end of the day. Subjects were given coffee and memory tests at eight in the morning and again at four in the afternoon. The control group was given decaffeinated coffee and "showed a significant decline in memory performance from morning to afternoon." The caffeinated group, by contrast, showed no decline in performance.

In 2005, researchers presented findings that caffeine affects short-term working memory at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America. Subjects were shown a sequence of simple images (the letters A, B, C or D) and then asked if an image was the same as the one shown two images earlier, responding as quickly as possible. The task was performed after 12 hours without caffeine and four hours without nicotine. Subjects received 100 milligrams of caffeine (approximately the amount in two cups of coffee) as well as a placebo which was randomized across subjects so that each of them underwent a caffeine and placebo scan. In the "caffeine condition," the subjects demonstrated a tendency towards improved short-term memory skills and reaction times during the task. They showed increased activity in brain regions located in the frontal lobe, where a part of the working memory network is located, and the anterior cingulum, the part of the brain that controls attention. In the "placebo condition," the subjects showed no change in activation patterns.

Caffeine is, of course, a stimulant. These studies have been promoted in the media as being about coffee, but can just as easily be read as being about tea or even some other type of stimulant delivered in pill form. In short, these studies shouldn't be read as a mandate to go out and start drinking coffee all day – especially for seniors with any kind of sleep disturbance or troubles.

The author of the 2002 study noted, in fact, that all the participants were regular coffee drinkers. People not used to regular caffeine consumption might have experienced a myriad of negative side effects – anxiety, decreased concentration or shakiness – that may have harmed their performance on the memory tests if they had been included in the study. Keep in mind that everything, even coffee, in best in moderation.

Tips for Caffeine Drinking:
• Moderate the total number of caffeine beverages you drink during the day to keep your caffeine intake under 300 mg (at the most)
• Limit caffeine intake to before lunch to avoid having the caffeine adversely affect your sleep.
• Exercise after having caffeine to take advantage of the energy boost caffeine can provide as well as mitigate its stress-inducing properties.
• Know your caffeine levels: Strong drip coffee (145 mg), espresso (75 mg), instant coffee (60 mg), black tea (60 mg), green tea (25 mg), cola drinks (range from 40 to 60 mg).
• Avoid hyper-caffeinated beverages such as Jolt or Red Bull.
• Know that even "decaf" versions of naturally caffeinated beverages like coffee have some caffeine in them.
• Herbal teas come in a wide range of flavors – from robust and earthy to mild and floral – and are an excellent substitute for sipping in the afternoon and evening.
• Look up the caffeine content of specific drinks at Energy Fiend:

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