Oh joy! Some rare good news from that messenger of repeated gloom where women are concerned: medical science. Caffeine is good for you. It’s particularly good at warding off depression.
New research from the Harvard School of Public Health, based on data from nearly 51,000 women shows that those who regularly drink four cups of caffeinated coffee a day have a 20% lower risk of clinical depression than non-drinkers.
The study tracked the women over a period of 10 years from 1996, taking detailed health information every two years, not only on their caffeine intake and depression risk factors but on overall health, weight, use of hormones, exercise and smoking. Over the decade, 2,607 cases of clinical depression were diagnosed, 20% less of it in the heavy coffee drinkers.
Sadly there’s no statistical breakdown on whether it’s espresso, latte or cappuccino that’s most effective.
Caffeine, it has long been known, activates the release of various neurotransmitters — such as dopamine and serotonin — related to mood.
During World War 2, as Nicolas Rasmussen details in his book On Speed, research aimed at getting the most effective performance out of soldiers showed it was more greatly enhanced and exhaustion-reduced by caffeine than by amphetamines — though the latter were preferred as being less addictive.
More recent Finnish research on 2,200 men has shown that heavy coffee drinkers had a significantly lower risk of severe depression. So coffee works on both sexes, it seems, though this study of men was too small to be statistically significant.
Not unlinked to depression is the 1996 study of some 86,000 American nurses which reported that increasing coffee consumption lowers the risk of suicide in women - though after eight cups it apparently increases again.
What depresses me — not clinically, mind you — about these studies is that they’re underpinned by a chemical view of the human. Women, of course, with their hormones and reproductive organs have long been considered the most ‘chemical’ of all.
In this view, life’s journey becomes a matter of the vagaries of our hormones or our neurotransmitters.
As the scientists will also tell you, neurotransmitters respond to everything: hugs, kisses, conversation, books, pictures, hunger, worry, rows, war — all raise or lower chemical levels.
But somehow these don’t make it into medico-scientific studies. That’s not the researchers’ fault: it’s just the way our druggy society, with its drug-sponsored research organisations, has decided to measure things.
But it would have been interesting if, along with measuring the women’s coffee consumption in relation to depression, this latest research had asked: was the coffee drunk alone? With friends? At a cafe?
In other words: socially or medicinally? And was the depression to which over 2,000 of the women succumbed linked in any way to work or the lack of it, to difficulties with partners or children, to loneliness, to poverty?
For me, the most interesting and indeed mysterious part of this study is the authors’ claim that regular coffee drinkers were also more likely to smoke and drink alcohol, and were less likely to be involved in volunteer or community groups.
Now what can that mean? Does nicotine and alcohol also lower the risk of depression? Or is it that imbibers of coffee, nicotine and alcohol have a jolly old time of it and aren’t as prone to be overwhelmed by life’s downs?
I guess the final question to be put to the researchers is whether they think big pharma will now roll out a marketing campaign for caffeine tablets. Or should we all be buying shares in Caffé Nero and Starbucks?