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Put the Joy Back in Staying Healthy

Posted: April 24, 2009

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But the cancer research was flawed or overturned by more definitive findings. Not all the evidence has been exculpatory, however. A Harvard study published in 2008 found no overall association between caffeine consumption and breast cancer risk, but there were hints of a connection in women with a history of benign breast disease and those whose tumors were estrogen- and progesterone-receptor negative.

Meanwhile, the coffee–cardiovascular disease research has done an about-face: now the gist is that coffee drinkers seem to be less likely to have heart attacks and strokes and develop diabetes than nondrinkers. The caffeine in coffee does constrict blood vessels (that's why it can help with headaches caused by vessels that have dilated) and may increase your heart rate a little, but those are transitory effects. Coffee has other ingredients (specifically, phenolic compounds) that seem to cancel out whatever negative effects chronic exposure to caffeine might have. Those other ingredients might explain why decaffeinated coffee has shown benefits similar to the caffeinated version in several studies.

Study results indicate that coffee drinking may tamp down the risk of developing Parkinson's disease. No one is sure why, although it's been suggested that caffeine affects receptors in the basal ganglia, the part of the brain most damaged in Parkinson's. Other studies are brewing hopes that coffee may affect our brain cells in ways that diminish risk for dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

The good healthkeeping seal of approval for coffee comes with cautionary notes. Pregnant women are still advised to limit, if not avoid, caffeine intake, although the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists' position is confusing. Its patient brochure says "some studies suggest drinking three or more cups of coffee per day may increase the risk of miscarriage," but adds "there is no proof that caffeine causes miscarriage." Another caution: unfiltered coffee — which includes coffee drinks made with espresso — may increase "bad" LDL levels because some harmful substances in the coffee don't get filtered out. There's nothing wrong with the occasional latte or cappuccino, but overdoing it may mean a return to the bad old days when coffee was cardiovascularly suspect.

Sex

Obviously sexual arousal and orgasm is a source of great pleasure and a sense of well-being, but even after the immediate glow fades, there may be residual health benefits. Sexual activity can cause heart attacks, but it's been estimated that chances are only one in a million that a man who has had a heart attack will have another during or immediately after sex. Meanwhile, other research has suggested that frequent sexual intercourse (twice a week) is associated with reduced heart attack risk, even after making the statistical adjustments necessary to account for the fact that men who have sex that often are healthier over all. Conventional sexual activity revs up the metabolism, but only so far: orgasms, minute for minute, create the same exercise workload as walking at a pace of three miles per hour. The cardiovascular demands of sex have been compared to walking up two flights of stairs. Even if sex isn't great aerobic exercise, exercise may make for better sex: several studies have shown that moderate exercise increases genital response to erotic stimuli in women.