Stephanie Smith: I’ll take coffee advice with a pinch of salt

I’M as partial to a health fad as the next person. Probably more so. To prove it, I am upping my intake of coffee from zero to four cups a day, even though I think it tastes like brick dust and makes me feel queasy. No matter, I will force it down because because coffee is good for you, and that’s official. Sort of.

Screaming headlines along the lines of “Coffee Prevents Clogged Arteries” and “Just three coffees a day slashes risk of heart attacks and strokes” have swayed me, as have numerous stories on TV and radio, health blogs and media outlets everywhere, all reporting a study which has found that people who drink three to five cups of coffee a day are less likely to develop the clogged arteries that can lead to heart attacks and strokes.

The research was carried out on more than 25,000 Korean men and women with an average age of 41, asking them about their coffee habits and then testing them for the presence of coronary artery calcium, an early indicator of coronary atherosclerosis. Those who drank three to five cups a day had the lowest levels, so there you go.

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The reports beg a few questions, not least about caffeine and quantity. I had a to do a bit of digging, but apparently those three to five cups per day seem to refer to eight-ounce cups of coffee containing an estimated 100 milligrams of caffeine each. A grande filter coffee from a well-known US coffee house chain contains 225mg, so just two of those and you’ve reached your quota. But I’ve been pondering, maybe the best way to have your coffee is in small, frequent doses rather than one or two big ones? News reports give little or no indication. And then, is it the caffeine or something else in the coffee that brings benefits? There’s caffeine in tea and energy drinks. Do they count, or not?

Anyway, that’s the good health news. Now for the bad health news. Paracetamol is bad for you. Researchers have found that long-term reliance on the world’s most widely used painkiller has been linked to an increased 
risk of gastro-intestinal problems, stroke and high blood pressure.

This was a Leeds-based study of studies, eight – to be precise – and two of which found a correlation between increasing doses of paracetamol and an increased relative rate of mortality from 0.95 to 1.63 when comparing patients who had been prescribed it compared with those who had not.

Now this sounds serious. This means I’m going to have to go back to the ibuprofen that I stopped taking when I read that it was bad for your liver, or your kidneys, or maybe both – although I read another report that said ibuprofen extended the life of worms by 15 per cent, which equates to an extra 12 years in human terms.

Then again, I’ve been pondering the true dangers of paracetamol... does “being prescribed” mean the same as actually taking the tablets?

What to do for the best? Maybe just live with aches and pains. Never mind that the best medical brains on the planet have given us two easy painkillers that can, in a way generally reckoned to be quite safe, take away minor but debilitating pain.

Maybe, in the long run, it’s better to suffer?

I suspect that the real health issue, the real story, is an age-old one, and lies in the fact that too many of us are looking for the key to, if not eternal life, at least a long and healthy one - the ideal being around 90 happy, illness-free years, after which we fall asleep, let’s say on the eve of our 95th birthday, preferably after a wonderful meal with loved ones, all affairs and scores settled satisfactorily, and then we never wake up.

An ideal way to go but not, sadly, one that most of us will experience, not those of us who want to have our cake and eat it, along with our wine, our chips, our beef and our painkillers. Even those who live the healthiest of lifestyles cannot beat genes, or bad luck.

We live in fear of death, and it could well be damaging our health.

For all that doctors and scientists are working hard to uncover new links, cures and preventions, their efforts are being threatened by the modern-day quackery of the media, preying upon our fears and self-obsession.

The authors of the coffee study have been more cautious than most media outlets about the study’s conclusions, stressing that “further research is warranted to confirm our findings and establish the biological basis of coffee’s potential preventive effects on coronary artery disease”.

So maybe I’d better stick to the tea that I love and keep on popping the odd paracetamol.

You have to take these health reports and scares with a pinch of salt – a very tiny pinch (although, actually, I’ve just read that salt has antibacterial properties and is good for the skin).

Maybe it is time to wake up and smell the coffee. But not necessarily drink three to five cups of it.

Stephanie Smith is a features writer for The Yorkshire Post.