By Steve Born
Coffee has oftentimes gotten a bad rap over the years, with many coffee opponents suggesting any number of potentially negative health issues associated with its consumption. New research, however, seems to be tipping the scales in favor of coffee's beneficial effects, even as profound as a lower risk of death overall compared to non-coffee drinkers.
In an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine ("Association of Coffee Drinking with Total and Cause-Specific Mortality" - N Engl J Med 2012; 366:1891-1904), researchers from the National Cancer Institute - Neal D. Freedman, Ph.D., Yikyung Park, Sc.D., Christian C. Abnet, Ph.D., Albert R. Hollenbeck, Ph.D., and Rashmi Sinha, Ph.D. - examined the association between coffee drinking and risk of death in U.S. men and women.
Their NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study took place between 1995 and 2008, and involved over 229,000 men and over 173,000 women between the ages of 50 and 71 at the start of the study. During the first year of the study, coffee intake information was collected by questionnaire; participants' coffee consumption habits were then followed until the end of 2008 (or until their death, if it preceded the end of the study). Of the 400,000+ participants, the overwhelming majority drank 2-3 cups daily. (Approximately 42,000 participants drank no coffee, and roughly 15,000 drank six cups or more a day.)
What the researchers found was quite eye-opening: The association between coffee consumption and a reduction in the risk of death increased with the amount of coffee consumed. Compared to those who did not drink coffee, men who had 2-3 cups per day had a roughly 10% lower risk of death. Women in the study experienced even better results, with about a 13% lower risk of death compared to non-coffee drinkers. Specifically, coffee consumption was linked to a decreased risk of dying from injuries, infections, stroke, and heart disease, though it was not linked to fewer cancer-related deaths.
Dr. Freedman states, "Coffee is one of the most widely consumed beverages in America, but the association between coffee consumption and risk of death has been unclear. We found coffee consumption to be associated with lower risk of death overall, and of death from a number of different causes. Although we cannot infer a causal relationship between coffee drinking and lower risk of death, we believe these results do provide some reassurance that coffee drinking does not adversely affect health."
Dr. Freedman also alluded to the fact that precisely what the mechanism may be for coffee's beneficial effects remains unclear, especially since there are over 1,000 compounds (phytochemicals) in coffee that may have played a role. However, because the benefits in this particular study were found in those drinking both caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee, it's certainly possible to rule out caffeine.
Coffee's other potential benefits
In addition to this recent study, previous studies point to other health benefits attributed to the consumption of coffee.
Type 2 diabetes - A study in mid- 2011 suggests that the chlorogenic acid content in coffee helps to lower the risk of type 2 diabetes by almost two-thirds. This is believed to be due to chlorogenic acid's effect - as well as other compounds, including caffeine, that potentiate its effect - in reducing elevated blood glucose levels, increasing insulin sensitivity, and decreasing storage of fat and carbohydrates. 
Reduction of cancer risk
- Prostate cancer: A study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute reported that men who drank six or more cups of coffee a day had an 18% lower risk of prostate cancer, as well as a 40% lower risk of aggressive or lethal prostate cancer. These results were seen in those consuming either caffeinated or decaffeinated coffee, which indicates that one or more compounds other than caffeine were responsible. 
- Certain breast cancers: A study reported in Breast Cancer Research found that postmenopausal women who consumed five cups of coffee daily had a 57% decrease in their risk of developing non-hormone-responsive breast cancer.  The results of another study showed that drinking two or more cups of coffee daily delayed the onset of breast cancer in women with a certain genetic type. 
- Colorectal cancer: The data from two dozen studies found up to a 30% lower incidence of colorectal cancer, with the higher percentage among those who drank greater amounts of coffee. Several earlier studies confirm this metaanalysis. This confirms the findings from several earlier studies. [6-9]
- Liver cancer: The results of a 2005 study showed that a single cup of coffee daily was associated with a 42% lower risk of liver cancer . Several other studies have reported similar findings [references available upon request].
Cardiovascular disease - While blood pressure can rise shortly after drinking coffee, studies suggest that coffee's phytochemicals, primarily chlorogenic acid, help decrease blood pressure over the long term. One study reports that after eight weeks of coffee consumption, blood pressure readings decreased in study participants . One study involving over 40,000 women over a 15-year period found that those who consumed one to three cups of coffee per day had a nearly 25% decreased risk from cardiovascular disease .
Liver disease - The findings of a study reported in the Annals of Epidemiology showed a whopping 84% lower risk of cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) for people who drank four cups of coffee daily .
These are only a few of the benefits attributed to drinking coffee. Once (and perhaps still) frowned upon for its supposed negative health effects, coffee very much seems to be proving itself to be a healthy beverage, with this latest study arguably being the most profound one to date. Additional studies are needed to confirm Dr. Freedman's and his associates' preliminary findings, but this study's results - as well as other studies linking coffee to beneficially addressing numerous health issues - are undeniably promising.
Loaded with antioxidant power, as well as literally thousands of phytochemicals (it may take science quite a long time to find out all of the benefits they may provide, alone or in tandem), it seems apparent that having a couple cups of high-quality coffee daily - caffeinated or decaffeinated - may be a very healthy part of one's diet. A quote by Keith Ayoob, associate professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, perhaps states it best: "[Coffee] can be part of a healthy diet and lifestyle and may even contribute to such a lifestyle. I wouldn't want it to push out nutritious foods, but in and of itself, there is no reason to suggest that drinking coffee is negative, and it may be beneficial." HN