I recently came across the headline, “Drinking coffee linked to lower suicide risk in adults.” The article detailed a recently published study that examined coffee and caffeine intake of 208,424 people enrolled in three different multi-decade studies. Consumption of caffeine, coffee, and decaffeinated coffee was assessed every 4 years by food-frequency questionnaires.
During the study periods, 277 people died by suicide, according to their death certificates.
The researchers found a correlation between people who drank more coffee (2-4 cups per day), and a 50 percent decrease in their risk of death by suicide.
But, like with most studies of this nature that simply follow a cohort of individuals over time, researchers can’t really tell you which way this correlation goes.
Are people who drink more coffee really at less risk for suicide?
Is coffee some sort of preventative anti-depressant? The researchers certainly believe so:
The researchers report that as well as stimulating the central nervous system, caffeine acts as a mild anti-depressant by boosting the production of particular neurotransmitters in the brain. These include noradrenaline, dopamine, and serotonin.
They add that this could explain the results of studies in the past that have linked the consumption of coffee to a lower risk of depression.
But the researchers only looked at completed suicides — not people who were suicidal and weren’t successful in following through with their suicide.
And that’s a big difference, because the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tell us that only 1 in 25 attempted suicides are successful.
That means in this study population where 277 people actually committed suicide, another 6,925 people attempted suicide but were unsuccessful. They researchers had no data to report on this group of people and their caffeine intake, because they limited their analysis to only completed suicides.
So does caffeine really help with suicidal risk?
The answer is — we don’t know. Without looking at the larger group of people who are suicidal — either having attempted suicide or have made concrete plans to commit suicide — researchers can’t really say that caffeine acts as a sort of prophylactic against suicide. All they can say is that there is a correlation between lack of caffeine intake and successfully committing suicide.
So should we all go out and start drinking even more coffee? Well, it’s one of those small things that can’t hurt you much (according to the research) if you do drink 2 or 3 cups a day. And if it doesn’t hurt, doesn’t cost a lot (stick to making it at home), and might help — why not try it?
It doesn’t have to be coffee, either. Any source of caffeine — such as tea — is likely to grant similar benefits (if such benefits are actually real).
For me, I’m not going to change my caffeine intake habits based a study like this. But I already drink 2 cups a day and don’t notice it doing much for my mood one way or another.
Read the article: Drinking coffee linked to lower suicide risk in adults
Michel Lucas, Eilis J. O’Reilly, An Pan, Fariba Mirzaei, Walter C. Willett, Olivia I. Okereke & Alberto Ascherio. (2013). Coffee, caffeine, and risk of completed suicide: Results from three prospective cohorts of American adults. The World Journal of Biological Psychiatry.