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My coffee dilemma: Alzheimer’s protection vs sleep

My friend Michael, a doctor and runner, hasn’t tasted meat in decades. His gastronomic no-go list includes French fries, chocolate chip cookies, all but the merest drop of anything alcoholic and—until recently—coffee. Now he’s forcing himself to start drinking the dark stuff again—although, since it tastes “like medicine,” he can tolerate just a few sips. His goal: three to five cups a day. According to a recent Finnish study, that’s the intake required to reduce one’s risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Like me, Michael comes from an Alzheimer’s family. He’s afraid to end up the way his relatives did, not knowing who or where they were. That makes two of us (click here for my previous Alzheimer’s post). A man of science, Michael’s no pushover when it comes to studies. But he told me, “You’d better check it out.”

When I think of Alzheimer’s, I picture my grandfather, immobile in a nursing home and silent except for a soft, heaving sound, like muffled laughter or sobs. His room, which he shared with a legless, foul-mouthed curmudgeon, smelled of stale pee overlaid with heavy-duty cleaning fluid. On good days Grandpa could speak one word: dear. A word that could apply to any one of the women—his wife, his two daughters, his sister-in-law—who loved the man he used to be.

My mother told me stories about her father—his wit, his gentleness, his generosity. A country storekeeper all through the Depression, he kept extending credit to farmers who would never have the money to pay him back. The business failed, but not his zest for life. He always had a squeeze for Grandma’s ample bottom, a twinkly smile for his children (and everybody else’s). “I’m so sorry you never had a chance to know him,” Mother said.

I dreaded our visits to the nursing home. I used to ask myself which would be worse, to have no legs or no mind. I always picked no legs. The legless man seemed to get his jollies by tearing a strip off people. His point seemed to be, “I’m here, goddammit!” But at least he still had a point to make.

My mother was 66 when she began to lose her bearings on familiar streets. She forgot how to cook her signature mac-and-cheese. By this time Alzheimer’s had taken not only her father but so many other relatives (including her sister) that she called it “the family curse.” My mother’s illness proved to be an inoperable brain tumour. You could say that she was doomed, but in her own eyes she had been spared.

About half of my mother’s cousins had dementia (excluding those who died young of other causes). I think of them in my own forgetful moments, which plague me more often these days. I keep scanning the news for an Alzheimer’s breakthrough, but the coffee study looks to be the one hopeful sign (please do let me know if there’s something I’ve missed). The researchers followed 1400 people for 20 years. Their conclusion: coffee drinking lowers the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia by an impressive 60-65 percent. But one or two cups a day won’t cut it.

Last summer I steeled myself to reduce my coffee intake from four or five cups to a maximum of two, per order of a sleep clinic (click here for the details). I toughed out headaches, yawns and pangs of longing every time I passed a coffee bar. But Dr. Sleep had warned that if I didn’t ease up on the caffeine, I could forget about restful nights. After almost a year of better sleep on his regime, I’ve decided he was right.

Must I choose between warding off my greatest health bugaboo and living with chronic insomnia? Come to think of it, I’ve already chosen. Several weeks after Michael passed on his tip, I’m sticking with two cups of coffee a day. I don’t know if Alzheimer’s will one day ravage my brain. But I’ve learned from experience that insomnia can wreak plenty of mental and emotional havoc in the here-and-now. Lack of sleep has been linked to heart disease, cancer and depression, among other ills. And according to a new California study, REM sleep stimulates creative problem-solving.  It’s not that I’m losing my fear of the family curse, just that I’ve mustered the courage not to let fear keep me up at night. Where did it come from, this newfound mental clarity? Maybe from the solace of REM sleep.

Posted by Rona

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