In spite of the changes in marijuana laws in many states, caffeine is still the single most widely consumed psychoactive ingredient in the US. It’s easy to understand why: It quickly enhances our physical and cognitive performance and usually improves our mood.

Numerous studies have shown that caffeine improves performance on attentional tasks.  Unfortunately, most of these studies were performed on young adults. We know very little about the potential benefits of coffee in older adults. Some studies have found no benefits while others have concluded that older adults actually benefit more from caffeine than do younger adults.

We need some answers to this question because the population in the U.S. and world is aging, caffeine ingestion is widespread, and older adults are reluctant to give up their freedom to drive.  In 2012, about 15 percent of all drivers were older than 65 years. Should they be drinking coffee?

A study published this month in the journal Nutritional Neuroscience by scientists from Coventry University in the United Kingdom investigated the effects of acute caffeine ingestion on one particularly important skill that is critical for safe driving, coincidence anticipation timing (CAT).  CAT is especially important when predicting the arrival of a moving object, such as another car.  This skill is also critical when crossing a busy street. Older adults who do not play tennis report that they are increasingly affected in such critical skills. Older adults who do play tennis demonstrate very good CAT skills. However, what if existing physical limitations prevent an older adult from taking advantage of the benefits of tennis? Can caffeine help?

Yes. When a group of young (18-25 years old) and older adults (61-77 years old) were given about 200 mg of caffeine (in an artificially sweetened glass of water), or about two cups of regular brewed coffee, both young and older adults show a significant improvement in CAT ability. The scientists concluded that caffeine ingestion (coffee or tea) enhance both cognitive and perceptual-motor skills. By improving the accuracy of timing the movement of objects in complex environments, such as during driving or other daily activities, caffeine may reduce the risk of accidents. 

Two cups of coffee in the morning may help us to better focus our attention during the performance of tasks that become more risky as we age. For more on this topic:

© Gary L. Wenk, Ph.D. Author of Your Brain on Food (Oxford University Press)

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