by Patrick Cox
September 18, 2017
As hurricanes go, Irma wasn’t that bad. Though the eye of storm passed close to my home in Naples, Florida, I was never very worried. Flooding is the killer, not wind, and I’m not on the beach. What worried me was that I might run out of coffee in the aftermath.
We’ve had a remarkable lull in major hurricanes in the last decade but I’m old enough to have gone through worse. I knew what to expect. We lost power, air-conditioning, and running water for days, all in the heat of the Florida summer. Even cell phone and Internet service were out for nearly a week.
I can handle pioneer living conditions but not the catastrophe of a day without coffee. My hurricane prep, as we say in Florida, included stockpiling air-tight containers of cold brewed coffee.
Cold extraction takes longer, but it yields rich subtleties and fewer acid notes. Handled correctly, it never goes stale. My preference is extremely strong course-ground Columbian, steeped at room temperature for at least 36 hours.
As I write this, six days after Irma, I still don’t have running, potable water. But I’ve got coffee. Life is good.
Coffee as a Geroprotector
The seeds produced by the genus Coffea provide more than a delicious psychoactive beverage. They give us a glimpse into the genius of our genomes. Often, in fact, I marvel that humans love a powerful, natural geroprotector.
Geroprotectors like coffee are, of course, compounds that extend healthspans and reduce disease rates. But you will not hear coffee sellers saying anything about the health benefits of their product. Businesses can’t legally make health claims about anything they sell, however true, without the regulators’ very costly permission.
For decades, scientists have noted that coffee drinkers have significantly better health on average than teetotalers. My doubts were put to rest by a special issue of the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease (JAD) published in 2010.
The issue was titled “Therapeutic Opportunities for Caffeine in Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Neurodegenerative Disorders.” An article in Science News about the issue points out the evidence that coffee protects against dementia.
These marvelous Coffea seeds do far more than that. In fact, the scientists involved in the JAD issue stated that coffee is “disease modifying” for Alzheimer’s. That means that it can reverse the disease at higher doses. Approved AD drugs don’t even do that.
Coffee consumption correlates with lower rates of many age-related conditions. These include diabetes, Parkinson’s and other neurological disorders, cardiovascular, and liver disease. It also improves memory and reduces pain.
This general improvement in health and cognition is the hallmark of a geroprotector. Rather than narrowly treating a specific disease, it improves systems that impact aging and all age-related diseases.
I talked to Mark Smith, the editor-in-chief of the JAD, after the issue was published. I expected a cautious statement about coffee’s potential benefits. This is typical of scientists lacking confidence in their research. That’s not what I got.
His enthusiasm for coffee was unalloyed. Smith considered coffee a critically important tool for anyone interested in good health. And he made another important point.
Smith believed coffee’s ability to treat diseases in general and extend healthspans was an important proof of concept. It indicates that we can find even better panaceas, the ancient term for compounds that fix the problems that cause age-related debilities and diseases.
Since then, evidence of coffee’s efficacy has continued to mount. The Annals of Internal Medicine recently published a study that involved more than a half million people in 10 European countries. The subjects were enrolled in EPIC (European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition). As the abstract states, “Compared with nonconsumers, participants in the highest quartile of coffee consumption had statistically significantly lower all-cause mortality.”
At about the same time, The European Society of Cardiology (ESC) announced research that bolstered that conclusion. The ESC’s cohort was smaller, with about 20,000 subjects, but it adds statistical confidence to the EPIC research. A story about the ESC study, titled, “Higher coffee consumption associated with lower risk of early death,” is online in Science Daily.
For all but those who can’t drink coffee, this is good news. The better news, though, is that we’re starting to understand why coffee is a panacea/geroprotector.
Coffee and the mTOR Connection
Late last year, the Journal of Nutrition published a Japanese research paper titled, “Coffee consumption in aged mice increases energy production and decreased hepatic mTOR levels.” If you’ve been reading my scribbling, you know how important the mTOR gene pathway is.
Essentially, it is the pathway moderated by rapamycin. This compound, found in the soil of Easter Island, extends healthspans and even reverses some aging in older animals.
Though we have no longevity studies in humans yet, some people have managed to get access to the drug and claim dramatic health improvements. Reportedly, those who use the drug for anti-aging purposes do so cyclically to prevent its side effects, diabetes-like symptoms.
According to the Japanese study, coffee mimics rapamycin though not as efficiently. This is supported by a study published in Cell Cycletitled, “Coffee Induces Autophagy In Vivo.”
I think this is incredibly important research and wrote about it several years ago for my book The Methuselah Effect. Autophagy is the process by which our bodies consume older cells that are no longer functioning correctly. This helps in two ways.
First, the old useless cells no longer gum up the works or send confusing signals to the rest of the body. Second, they are replaced by fully functioning cells that can properly do their job of keeping you healthy.
There are many reasons to think that we can significantly outdo coffee’s benefits. Several companies are working on drugs that are likely to be powerful geroprotectors. One, Mount Tam Biotechnologies, has produced several variations of the rapamycin molecule that minimize unwanted side effects.
Mount Tam’s first drug candidate is aimed at a specific form of Lupus, not anti-aging. Recently, the company announced a collaboration with the University of Chile and the Laboratory of Claudio Hetz, PhD, to use a rapamycin analog to treat Parkinson’s disease.
Mount Tam is not moving a geroprotector forward because there is not yet an FDA pathway for a drug that treats aging as a disease. Investors, therefore, won’t support such an effort.
Unfortunately, most Western governments seem uninterested in promoting anti-aging strategies. That includes over-the-counter compounds like coffee or drugs like the rapalogs.
Change is happening, but it’s mostly in Asia. There, national budgets are already being crushed by the costs of aging. In fact, Mount Tam Biotechnologies’ chairman, Brian Kennedy, PhD, was recently appointed director of the new Centre for Healthy Ageing for Singapore’s National University Health system.
One of these days, Americans are going to wake up, smell the coffee, and demand that government stops impeding and starts supporting effective anti-aging strategies. The alternative is an economic storm that will make Irma’s destruction seem like a mild summer shower.