Coffee and Memory Loss: The Effects of Caffeine on the Brain

May 14, 2019

A couple enjoys delicious cups of coffee.
Stephanie Dwilson

Coffee can energize you, but are there any connections between coffee and memory loss? If you're a caffeine-lover like so many others, you'll want to better understand the effects of caffeine on the brain. Here's a look at how that energizer you're using for the mid-afternoon slump might be affecting you.

Coffee and the Brain

The science isn't set yet when it comes to caffeine, coffee and the brain. Caffeine mimics a biochemical called adenosine, which helps blood flow regulation and the balance of chemicals in your brain. By blocking adenosine receptors, it helps dopamine and glutamate work with less interference and aids with the release of serotonin and adrenaline, giving the "jolt" that so many people love from coffee.

Caffeine can also help stimulate faster information processing through enhanced brain entropy. This indicates that in the long run, caffeine actually might actually improve cognitive performance and memory. Some studies have shown that coffee may best improve memory if consumed while taking in the information and later while recalling it. But other studies, in contrast, indicated that caffeine might worsen a person's ability to freely recall events.

It gets even more confusing if you keep digging. Still, other studies have shown that three or more cups of coffee a day might lessen the risk of dementia in women over 80, but possibly only delay rather than remove the risk entirely. An entirely different study done on mice showed that anxiety and other symptoms might be worsened in people who already have Alzheimer's.

In addition, regular ground or filtered coffee (rather than instant) can decrease a person's risk of death and decrease the risk of cardiovascular mortality in older people. It may even protect against neurological conditions like Parkinson's and other chronic health conditions like diabetes or liver disease. And dark roast coffee in particular might help protect against memory loss later in life. In fact, a substance in coffee beans' coating, when paired with caffeine, might decrease the risk of Parkinson's and Lewy body dementia.

So in general, it appears that coffee and caffeine can have a positive affect, but the science is not completely determined. A 2016 study on mice summed it up nicely by sharing that the reports on caffeine were "conflicting" and "its effect may vary across different phases of learning."

Healthy Amounts of Coffee

It appears that caffeine and coffee can be helpful to your health and brain, but it's unclear at what doses it may no longer be so helpful. Because the science is still being determined, it might be a good idea to just stick to healthy amounts of coffee each day. Besides, caffeine isn't all positive. It can raise blood pressure, make you more nervous or even interrupt your sleep. And sleep deficits can have a significantly negative impact on your memory.

So how much is too much? Mayo Clinic suggests that up to 400 milligrams a day, which is about four cups of brewed coffee, is safe for most adults. However, some adults may find that they have side effects like nervousness, insomnia or even muscle tremors, and they may need to drink less. You'll also want to be cautious about drinking coffee while taking other stimulants, like ephedrine found in decongestants. In those cases, both substances might enhance the adverse effects.

Coffee Alternatives

If you're experiencing unpleasant side effects from caffeine or just feel like you're drinking too much coffee, then you might want to cut back. Remember that cutting back too fast can cause headaches, fatigue and even flu-like symptoms. So decrease your caffeine slowly. Try switching to decaf coffee or tea so you can still enjoy a nice warm beverage. Other coffee alternatives include kombucha tea (which has caffeine, but less), probiotic drinks, coconut water, fruit juice or even hot apple cider.

Most studies show that when it comes to coffee and memory loss, coffee can have a protective effect, but not always. The effects of caffeine on the brain are still being studied. So you can enjoy your coffee in moderation, knowing it could be helping your health, but keep an eye out for unpleasant side effects or sleep loss.

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