Editor’s Note: This story was written by and republished with the permission of Ithaca Week, a weekly magazine produced by the students of the Advanced Multimedia Journalism class at the Roy H. Park School of Communications, Ithaca College.


Better make that next coffee a “grande:” a Cornell-led study published in May shows that the degradation of the retina may be prevented by drinking coffee.

The study, conducted by Cornell Professor Chang Y. Lee and graduate student Holim Jang, shows that coffee has “some positive effect on [preventing] coronary heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, [and] Alzheimer’s.”

The study began last year when Jang, a frequent coffee drinker, approached Lee about the relationship between the chlorogenic acid compound in coffee and its ability to prevent oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is caused by aging and, as Lee says, “wear and tear.”

“These days, we use our eyes more than ever before,” Lee said. “We have small telephone all day long and the computer over here, [and] …we are having more problems related to the eyes.”

Initial tests yielded positive results, but further examination revealed it was not just pure, chlorogenic acid reaching the retina, but also two smaller compounds derived from chlorogenic acid. These smaller compounds are dihydroxyhydrocinnamic acid (DHCA) and dihydroferulic acid (DHFA). As compared to chlorogenic acid, which the body does not absorb well, these two metabolites are well-absorbed by the bloodstream and carried to the retina.

“We [changed] our research path,” said Lee. “Instead of chlorogenic acid, we should understand what these transformed, new compounds are working.”

These two compounds are working on the macula, or the center part of the retina, says Dr. Robert Innocenzi, an ophthalmologist in Chino, California.. Lee and Jang’s study says degeneration of this area begins around the age of 27; thus, theoretically, coffee could begin strengthening the all-important retina before individuals reach the age of 30, let alone 60.

“[The retina] is the most important thing,” said Innocenzi. “If there is a problem with the retina, especially in the center part of it, the patient wouldn’t be able to see or would lose significant amount of vision and that is very difficult to treat.”

Lynne Pierce knows the importance of the retina all too well. She was rushed to Retina Vitreous Surgeons of Central New York on September 11, 2014, after doctors discovered a tear in her retina.

“It’s so frustrating because I can’t see,” said Pierce. “It’s been two weeks [since the surgery], and I did not anticipate the recovery to be this long.

Still, there are questions regarding this on-going research.

“The one issue,” said Dr. Ed Kulback, an optometrist in Freehold, N.J., “is that results have not been very conclusive as far as what to do at 20-years old to prevent this from happening at 60, 70-years old.”

“There are so many if, then, this, that’s,” said Mimi Mehaffey, owner of popular coffee-shop chain Collegetown Bagels in Ithaca, N.Y. “[But] the more science that is done that says it’s good makes me feel even better about offering and selling it.”

Holim Jang is currently at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST), where human testing of this study is being conducted.

Although he feels all the more excited for his morning cup of coffee after this study, Lee will be sticking to the recommended, 3.1 cups of coffee per day.

“Like any other things…moderation is the key,” Lee said. “So, up to 3-4 cups, enjoy, [and if] it has a beneficial effect, then so be it.”


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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.