Good news for coffee lovers: Caffeine may make your brain healthier

  • New research shows that caffeine may have long-term benefits for our brain — including improved long-term memory.
  • Coffee consumption has been positively linked with lower risks of brain tumors.
  • Here’s how to consume the right amount of caffeine to reap the benefits.

From soft drinks to chocolate, caffeine is sneakily present in many of the products we regularly consume. While most of the news about caffeine consumption is about its potential negative impact (poor sleep and unpleasant withdrawal symptoms), new research suggests that your morning cup of coffee may actually have long-term benefits for your brain.

“The most well-established benefit of caffeine is that it boosts mental performance — often by up to 200%,” said Jamie Hickey, registered dietician and founder of Truism Fitness

The study Hickey referred to looked at 118 middle-aged people from 45 to 64 who didn’t regularly consume caffeine or any other stimulants.

Here’s a look at the most recent research on how coffee consumption can benefit your brain, and how to drink the right amount for your body.

The health benefits of caffeine

Coffee is a naturally occurring drug that contains caffeine. It also contains chemicals with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, which can benefit our cardiovascular system as well as our cognitive function.

Recent research took a look at how daily caffeine intake could impact the brain function of older adults. Over five years, the study looked at changes in the participants’ brains to monitor changes that typically correlate with dementia and impaired cognitive function.

The result? Participants who drank coffee regularly showed smaller amounts of dead brain tissue linked to the risk of brain strokes. These participants also scored higher on tests that measured cognitive function.

A related study took a look at how regular coffee consumption impacted long-term memory. In examining antioxidant systems in the brain, the study reported not only improved long-term memory but positive effects on what’s known as the brain-gut axis, aiding in cognitive function, as well.

What’s the right amount of coffee?

If you want to reap the benefits of coffee, Hickey said, it’s essential to be sure you’re doing so with the amount that’s right for your body.

“Caffeine can be detrimental if consumed in excessive amounts,” he said. “It is advised not to exceed 400 milligrams of caffeine on any given day. This may be too much for a lot of people, since a vast majority are sensitive to stimulants like caffeine.”

To put this into perspective, the average 8-ounce cup of coffee contains around 80 to 100 milligrams.

“If you feel jittery, anxious, or experience heart palpitations, you are drinking too much,” he said.

If your coffee intake seems to be low compared to the symptoms you’re experiencing, it may be helpful to start keeping a food-and-beverage diary for a few days. It may be that even though you’re only consuming one or two cups of coffee per day, your overall caffeine consumption is higher, thanks to products like sodas, sweets, or certain supplements. Some apps can help you track your caffeine consumption to make the process more accessible, as well. 

The best way to benefit from coffee

It’s crucial to understand how this caffeine interacts with our bodies.

“At a molecular level, caffeine is more like methamphetamines than it is like coffee,”Hickey said. “Caffeine release and absorption levels will vary according to the individual’s height, weight, age, stomach size, strength, and other factors.”

Because of this, Hickey recommended keeping your coffee consumption to the morning hours. The later in the day you drink it, the more likely it is to interfere with your ability to fall asleep.

“On average, its ‘half-life’ or excretion time can be increased by 10 to 12 hours when consumed later in the day,” he said. “Also, make sure you aren’t drinking anything else that has caffeine in it or combining it with a workout supplement that has caffeine added to it.”