Health benefits of coffee remain in decaf version


Hello, dear readers, and welcome to our monthly letters column. We have a lot to talk about, so we’ll dive right in.

-- In a column about coffee, we discussed research that linked daily coffee consumption to lower rates of cognitive decline. This prompted a question from a reader. “Does drinking decaf provide the same health benefits as regular coffee?” she asked. “I am 71 years old and seldom drink ‘real’ coffee. It would be nice to get the same health benefits from my decaf.”

It’s a tricky question because not all studies into the health benefits of coffee distinguish between decaf and the full-strength variety, or they don’t include decaf at all. However, a survey of coffee studies that did address decaf found that many of the same health benefits are found in both beverages. These include a reduced risk of Type 2 diabetes, certain neurogenerative diseases and cognitive decline. The benefits of coffee are attributed to the numerous organic compounds and antioxidants it contains. Even after the chemical process to remove caffeine, it has been determined that the majority of these compounds remain in decaf.

-- We recently wrote about research that found people with naturally red hair can have a higher tolerance to pain medication than the rest of the population. That means redheads can require higher doses of some pain-killing medications and of anesthesia. This prompted a letter from a reader in Pennsylvania about her late husband’s struggles with pain management. “He suffered from chronic pain related to degenerative arthritis, but the doses of pain medications that he was prescribed never really worked,” she wrote. “Doctors were hesitant to (increase them) because of the massive problem of substance abuse. He was a true redhead -- his trademark was a red beard. Perhaps this study helps to explain his journey through pain.”

-- With the gut microbiome a popular topic in our columns, we often discuss the colon. This led to a question from a reader with a family history of colon cancer. “Does everyone have the same diameter and length of colon, or does it correspond to one's height or weight?” they asked. “Several aunts and uncles died from colon cancer, and their tumors were very high up. I always worry the doctor won’t advance far enough during a colonoscopy.”

Elizabeth Ko, MD and Eve Glazier, MD
The colon, which is shaped roughly like an inverted letter U, is the final portion of the gastrointestinal tract. There is a correlation between height and the length of the colon. Also, women tend to have a longer colon than men. A curve in the colon, known as the hepatic flexure, can present difficulty in a colonoscopy if it is too sharp or too narrow. In these patients, it can be worthwhile to use the smaller pediatric colonoscope. Let your doctor know about your family history, and ask if this is a useful option for you.

Thank you, as always, to everyone who took the time to write. We love hearing from you. And to those self-described “old farts” who wrote to thank us for the flatulence column -- very cheeky, but you made us laugh.

(Send your questions to [email protected], or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o UCLA Health Sciences Media Relations, 10960 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1955, Los Angeles, CA, 90024. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)