Coffee serves up surprising health benefits

eva emerson
Sandy Schaffer
The office coffee machine is exactly 20 strides from my desk chair — I make the trip a bit too frequently (and gleefully). Or so I assumed. Coffee, that wonderful elixir and productivity booster, the fuel of every editor’s note I have written for this magazine, seemed so good that something about it must be bad.

Reinforced by at least one well-publicized study on how coffee can raise blood pressure, I didn’t doubt that line of thinking, however puritanical. But then biomedicine writer Nathan Seppa pitched a story on the health benefits of coffee. I gave it a thumbs-up before I even heard what those benefits were.

The result describes the accumulating evidence for how coffee can boost health, especially in the liver (who knew?). It also shows the limits of drawing conclusions from a single study: Coffee junkies don’t really appear to have a higher risk of chronic elevated blood pressure — it’s just that drinking two to three cups can boost blood pressure acutely (which may not be advisable for some people).

Seppa’s story also illustrates what he has always done so well: combing through a plethora of studies to synthesize the current state of research, allowing readers to take a step back and see beyond the single, sometimes conflicting public health messages that medical studies often produce. That skill, applied throughout his 18 years at Science News, will be sorely missed. This issue marks Seppa’s last — he officially retired on September 2 and promises (a bit too frequently and gleefully, I’d say) that he has no intention of freelancing. He’ll be too busy eating blueberry pie, cross-country skiing in the far reaches of Upper Michigan and drinking coffee. (Readers can enjoy his good-bye note here.)

Besides Seppa’s last feature, this issue boasts a first: a list of promising young scientists. It’s an experiment. We rarely focus on the people who do the science we report on, and I am eager to hear readers’ reactions to the stories. The selections were not scientific: We simply asked 30 Nobel Prize winners for names of young folks doing important, fascinating work. It’s not an exhaustive list, but it does offer a variety of compelling stories of discovery at the frontiers of science.

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