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Published: Wednesday, 3/8/2006

Drinking regular coffee may be linked to heart attack, study says

BY LUKE SHOCKMAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER
'These nonstop reports, they're so conflicting,' says Nicholas Aharon Boggioni, a customer at Downtown Latte. 'These nonstop reports, they're so conflicting,' says Nicholas Aharon Boggioni, a customer at Downtown Latte.
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From a health standpoint, vitamin D and calcium don't do as much for you as previously thought. And a low-fat diet is apparently not quite what it's cracked up to be. Now comes more bad news: If you drink a lot of coffee, you may keel over from a heart attack.

That's right. In today's Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers report that caffeinated coffee can increase the risk of nonfatal heart attacks in a large percentage of the public by as much as 64 percent.

At least until next week, when we'll probably learn that milk consumption causes your hair to fall out and chocolate is good for you. Well, that's a slight exaggeration - except for the chocolate part, which other recent research indicates might be true.

But given the recent bewildering studies - one found a low-fat diet had no benefit in preventing heart disease in women, another found calcium and vitamin D didn't help prevent hip fractures - it's easy to understand public reaction to the coffee news.

"These nonstop reports, they're so conflicting. I think, just drink it in moderation. I know [the study] won't change my behavior," said Nicholas Aharon Boggioni as he enjoyed a cup of coffee at Downtown Latte in Toledo.

Smart move. Even one of the researchers involved in the study said she's not giving up her cup of Joe.

"This is research, not clinical recommendations or guidelines for a diet," said Hannia Campos, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. "Don't worry about coffee."

Still, Ms. Campos said the findings were pretty unusual and are bound to get attention.

One, the study is in JAMA, one of the most prestigious medical journals in the country. Appearing in JAMA means the study was subject to a "peer-review" process by fellow scientists to ensure the study methodology was sound.

Two, and perhaps of most interest to scientists, this study linking coffee consumption and heart attack risk is unique in how it measured heart attack risk and coffee consumption. Previous studies looking at whether coffee had any bad health effects were mixed; some found no risk, some did.

But in this study the researchers split people into two groups of roughly the same size. One group had a gene variation that made them metabolize caffeine at a fast rate, and drinking coffee didn't affect them.

The other group, however, had a gene variation that causes them to break down caffeine more slowly. If this group of people drank two to three cups of coffee a day, their risk of having a heart attack increased 36 percent compared to those who just had one cup or less. Among this same group, the risk increased by 64 percent if they had four or more cups.

Though it's hard to be sure, it appears about half of us have the slow gene and half the fast.

The research was led by Ahmed El-Sohemy, a nutrition sciences professor at the University of Toronto. Like Ms. Campos, Mr. El-Sohemy said it's too soon to say whether coffee drinkers should change their behavior based on his research.

Like any study, his findings must be replicated by others, he said. For now, he just urges moderation.

"At the end of the day, even with one cup of coffee, whether you had the slow or fast-acting gene, there was no increased risk," he said. "It's when you drink two or more cups that you start to see an effect."

Mr. El-Sohemy drinks one cup of coffee a day. When asked if the findings had caused him to change how much coffee he drinks, he paused, then replied in a way only a researcher could appreciate: "My coffee drinking is consistent with my gene."

Dr. Nieca Goldberg, a New York cardiologist and national spokesman for the American Heart Association's "Go Red For Women" campaign, was rather annoyed with the study.

"My patients just sit there and say, 'I'm so confused,'‚óŹ" she said of the flood of media coverage on various health risks. "There are days I wish the Internet was turned off. ... I mean what's a person to do? Either eat everything they want, according to some research, or just starve to death because nothing is safe."

Dan Wilkins knows the feeling. He was sipping an espresso earlier this week at Downtown Latte and said trying to sort out medical studies is confusing. In defense of his caffeine jolt, he said it can't be overlooked that coffee drinking has many benefits, especially when shared with others in a soothing atmosphere like a coffee shop.

And, he pointed out, "long ago, before there was coffee, we used to drink beer. Even for breakfast." So, actually, we've made progress he argued.

Uh, nice try, Dan.

Like many physicians, Dr. Goldberg wishes patients would take a step back after reading about a medical study and focus on long-proven findings.

"So many people are not taking care of things we know for sure help reduce risk of heart disease," she said.

Exercise and eating a balanced diet, for example, have been shown time and time again to be key in living a healthy life. The low-fat study, for example, has been confusing, but what's often not talked about from that study is that it didn't specifically look at "bad" fats, like saturated or trans fat, but fat content overall.

So focus on proven guidelines and talk to your doctor. Or adopt the approach of another Downtown Latte customer, Dave Beckwith, a loyal soy latte consumer. He said he'll just keep sipping and wait for the study that shows coffee helps protect the heart.

"It's just like with eggs. Once they were bad, but now they're not," Mr. Beckwith began to explain.

Contact Luke Shockman at:

lshockman@theblade.com

or 419-724-6084.



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