A parting shot of coffee

Two decades of medical writing induces a certain skepticism toward research. You just can’t go all gaga over every study that crosses your desk. But I confess to being intrigued by a recent report on the benefits of steam baths called saunas. Scientists in Finland found that men who got overheated in a sauna regularly for 21 years lived longer than those who kept themselves at room temperature on most days.

I was equally impressed by a study suggesting blueberries are powerfully nutritious. Mice fed Nordic wild blueberries had lower blood pressure and less systemic inflammation than other mice. This also came from Finnish researchers.

I began to wonder whether the Finns were bent on finding merits in all their favorite foods and habits. For example, Finns are heavily into cross-country skiing, which passes for a good time during their long winters. You don’t need scientific studies to grasp the cardio effects of cross-country — but the Finns have done them anyway.

Now comes the coup de grace, extensive research finding that coffee is good for you. The Finns are world-class coffee drinkers, often leading in per-capita consumption. Their neighbors in Norway were the first to document coffee’s health benefits, but the Finns have chipped in plenty of research.

As the grandson of Finnish immigrants, I’ve always identified with the Finns. I even know the old jokes about their cultural stoicism. (Definition of a Finnish extrovert: During a chat, he stares at your shoes.)

So after 18 years at Science News, my last word will be a nod to my forebears. I’m biased, of course. Long ago, I married my high school sweetheart, a girl with sky blue eyes and a Finnish name. Over the years we have chuckled about the old Finnish ways, then gradually found ourselves adopting them. In retirement, we plan to spend a good bit of time on a lake in Upper Michigan where we own a cottage, with a sauna. It’s surrounded by wild blueberry meadows, and the winters there come with no shortage of snow.

Science News has been a great place to make a career. As I pack up my files on a hot summer day, it’s reassuring to look ahead knowing that a winter afternoon of cross-country skiing followed by a bone-melting sauna will be good for us — especially if followed by blueberry pie and coffee. 

Editor’s note: Nathan Seppa retired in early September after 18 years at Science News. His final feature, “The beneficial bean: Coffee reveals itself as an unlikely health elixir,” will appear in the October 3 issue. Last year, Seppa’s feature article “Impactful Distraction,” on the dangers of distracted driving, won the Folio Eddie Award for best consumer single article in science and technology. See these and other stories about studies that Seppa reported on his profile page.

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