Coaching Research Minute – Beyond the Headlines

You likely saw the coffee headlines this past week. They appeared in Forbes, the USA Today and everywhere in between: “Drinking more coffee lowers risk of death!”  Whooo – hooo!! Start the parades and drink up. There’s celebrating to do! (and another cup of coffee to enjoy).

The reason for the popular headline is simple. Newspapers, magazines and websites, as much as they have a goal to inform their readers, also understand they’re in the entertainment business. They want (need) more readers, so when there’s an opportunity to announce news that will grab the attention/interest of such a broad base of readers in this jam-packed media world, then it’s GO time!

But did anyone actually read the details of the study?!? As a certified wellness coach, you’re not just consuming headlines, you’re disseminating information to your clients. They trust you. As a result, our standards demand that we move beyond the headlines and dig into what really happened.  Here’s a link to the press release about the study. Even without access to the actual study, the details in this brief summary tell you quite a bit about the inaccuracy of the popular headlines. Here are a few highlights:

  • Average age of those studied was 37. It was a 10 year longitudinal study, so even by the end, the avg age was just 47.
  • The TOTAL number of deaths was 337 – out of almost 20,000 people. That’s a death rate of a miniscule 1.7% (about what would be expected for this age range), providing a very small sample size for comparison.
  • All cause mortality for this group was “reduced 64% among those drinking 4 cups/coffee/day vs. non-coffee drinkers” (but we generally don’t die in this age group anyway).
  • Conclusion (at least in the headlines) was “drink more coffee and reduce your mortality rate by 2/3rds.”

Wait – what?!? Does anyone see the problems here? There’s a long list, but here are a few to get you started in your analysis:

  • Mortality rates in this age group are low to begin with. Deaths among those with an average age of 47 are not expected. So what this study actually (possibly) indicated is that your risk of “unusual or abnormal death” is reduced with more coffee. However, it actually doesn’t likely even show that, as the other variables (such as income, exercise levels, eating habits, access to health care) do not appear to be part of the equation.
  • If coffee has positive or negative effects on health and mortality, those should be expected to appear in our 60’s, 70’s and 80’s – not our 40’s.
  • The potential negative health effects of coffee tied to reduced quality of sleep don’t show up in morality rates in our 40’s. Rather, they rear their ugly head later in life in a variety of ways. This study never gets to the time period that actually matters.

Best case scenario, this study simply tells us that drinking more coffee won’t lead to a higher incidence of unusual causes of death in our 40’s and early 50’s. Worst case scenario, it deceives the reader into thinking drinking more coffee extends the healthy lifespan.

Maybe it does. But in spite of the headlines, this study certainly doesn’t demonstrate that potential. In fact, it may simply tell us that you’re less likely to die in a car accident because you’re more alert on the way to work in the morning. But improved health and lower risk of death over the long haul? This study absolutely does not provide the data.

Enjoy your coffee, but while you’re sipping away, take a moment to look behind the headlines. As a certified health and wellness coach, it’s our privilege (and responsibility) to help our wellness clients understand and apply what really leads to a better life. In the mean time, we still suggest remembering the half-life of caffeine is 4-8 hours. So while that morning cup is filled with anti-oxidants, close to 50% of the caffeine from that afternoon cup is still in the bloodstream at bedtime. While it doesn’t keep us from falling asleep, it does impact the quality of sleep, and all that entails in life…

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