Decaf May Increases Arthritis Risk

ByMelinda T. Willis

Nov. 12, 2001 -- For many people, eliminating caffeine from their diet is part of a healthy lifestyle. However, new research shows some decaffeinated beverages may actually increase the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis.

Rheumatoid arthritis, also known as RA, is an autoimmune disease characterized by painful inflammation of the joints and internal organs. According to the Atlanta-based Arthritis Foundation, 2.1 million Americans suffer from RA, most of them women.

According to a study of more than 31,336 women aged 55-69, women who reported consuming four or more cups of decaffeinated coffee a day were more than twice as likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis, compared to women who never drank decaf. The findings were presented Sunday at the American College of Rheumatology Annual Scientific Meeting in San Francisco.

Regular java junkies can breathe a sigh of relief, since no link was seen between caffeinated coffee intake and rheumatoid arthritis risk.

Reasons Unknown

Previous studies done by Finnish researchers had origianlly established a link between overall coffee intake and RA in March 2000, says lead author Dr. Ted Mikuls, a rheumatologist in the division of clinical immunology and rheumatology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

The study found people who drank 11 or more cups of coffee a day were nearly 15 times more likely to develop RA than those who did not drink coffee. But "the study looked at [all] coffee, with really no breakdown of coffee types," says Mikuls.

The exact mechanisms behind the most recent findings are "purely speculation" at this point, says Mikuls. One idea is that it may have something to do with the way decaf coffee was processed.

"In the mid-1980s and before that, the decaffeination process involved the use of chemicals and chemical solvents," says Mikuls. These chemicals may be to blame for the increase seen in the decaf study. However, these findings may not be seen with today's decaf because it is now processed differently.

Put Down the Decaf?

The new study also found that drinking more than three cups of tea a day is associated with an approximated 60 percent decrease in RA risk compared to drinking no tea at all.

However, because the study did not determine which specific types of tea women consumed, it is very difficult to pinpoint which teas might be of benefit and why.

Since coffee and tea are extremely popular beverages, the study's findings may have large implications for public health.

So based on these findings, should people reduce their decaf coffee consumption or eliminate it altogether? Researches say the answer is "not yet."

"I really wouldn't make any health behavior recommendations based just on this study," says Mikuls. "The next step is for this to be corroborated by other investigators."

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