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The Pros and Cons of Caffeine

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Our morning cup of coffee or tea is so anticipated, so beloved, so essential to our lives that many of us consider it a cup of concentrated sunshine.

What that caffeinated coffee or tea really is, according to journalist Michael Pollan, is the world’s most widely used psychoactive drug. “This little molecule has 90 percent of people on Earth pretty much addicted,” he says in his new audiobook Caffeine: How Caffeine Created the Modern World. “And it’s the only psychoactive drug we routinely give to children, commonly in the form of soda.”

In fact, caffeine is such a pervasive element of most of our lives that we take it for granted. “It isn’t just a drug; it is an experience,” he says. “It’s a set of aromas, a set of flavors, it’s a set of social practices.” And being influenced by caffeine is our baseline, default mode. “The particular quality of consciousness it sponsors in the regular user feels not so much altered or distorted as much as normal and transparent,” he explains.

So, to look behind the curtain and assess caffeine’s effect, Pollan forced himself to go cold turkey on his daily coffee and tea.

“It was very hard to do: It felt like I had ADD,” he reports. “All these distractions from the periphery kept coming into the center of my attention and I couldn’t achieve that kind of spotlight consciousness that you really need to write.”

During withdrawal, he suffered headaches, fatigue and lethargy, various flu-like symptoms, an all-round “muzziness,” decreased motivation, irritability, loss of confidence, and dysphoria. It was the polar opposite of euphoria; the world simply wasn’t as bright and interesting.

“People who’ve been drinking caffeine routinely for most of their lives have no idea what a powerful drug it is until you get off — and get back on,” he says. And after avoiding caffeine for three months, his first cup of coffee was simply “mindblowing.” Sipping it, he asked himself, Wow, this stuff is legal?

Pollan examines the pros and cons of our love for the caffeine molecule, 1,3,7-Trimethylxanthine: how it has influenced a range of things, including economic growth, imperialism, and slavery, as well as inspiring science, art, and literature.

Plus, caffeine offers health perks as well. “Because people enjoy coffee so much we assume there’s something really evil about it. There has to be — it can’t be that simple,” he says. Scientists have been searching for health problems to associate with caffeine since the 1650s, when coffee was first popularized in Europe. But research has found the opposite: Regular coffee consumption is associated with decreased risk of several cancers, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s, and possibly depression and suicide. Coffee and tea are also the leading source of antioxidants in our diet.

In addition, caffeine boosts our mental and physical performance “on a range of cognitive measures of memory, focus, alertness, vigilance, attention, and learning. . . . It also enhances physical performance on such metrics as time trials, muscle strength, and endurance.” But, Pollan notes, the difficulty in doing such research is finding a “control group of noncaffeinated people and as so many people drink coffee and tea and chances are a placebo group is in the throes of caffeine withdrawal.”

Does caffeine also enhance our creativity? Perhaps not.

“Caffeine improves our focus and ability to concentrate, which surely enhances linear and abstract thinking, but creativity works very differently: It may depend on the loss of a certain kind of focus and the freedom to let the mind off the leash of linear thought,” he says.

Still, he concludes, “It’s an amazing drug in that it gives you energy without calories.”

And yet Pollan reports that caffeine is the chief culprit in an invisible public-health crisis — Americans are sleep deprived, both in quantity and quality. “Caffeine itself might not be bad for you, but the sleep it’s stealing from you could be deadly,” he says.

“Here’s what’s uniquely insidious about caffeine: The drug is not only a leading cause of our sleep deprivation, it is also the principal tool we rely on to remedy the problem. Most of the caffeine consumed today is being used to compensate for the lousy sleep for which caffeine bears responsibility, which means that caffeine is helping to hide from our awareness the very problem that caffeine creates.”

For his part, Pollan is now trying to use coffee and tea as a “tool,” drinking it primarily on Saturdays to keep its mindblowing aspect fresh and unique. So far, so good, he reports — until he smells that aroma. “I had broken free of caffeine’s grip — or so I liked to think.”

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Health & Fitness

PUMPING IRONY: Not the Retiring Type

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One of the few prescient insights I can recall from my wayward postcollege days was the notion that a full retirement would surely elude my grasp. Social Security was certain to go bankrupt at some point, I figured, and even if it survived, the paltry income I’d earn as a freelance writer and editor would hardly translate into a monthly government check that would allow much in the way of work-free leisure in my dotage. Better to just grind away in scarcity mode, keep expenses to a minimum, and narrow my horizons. As Thoreau put it, “Simplify, simplify, simplify.”

The intervening 40-odd years have proven that life is complicated. I married, children appeared along with mortgages, car payments, and other financial realities. And, while I eventually began to earn a living wage at a succession of fragile publications, we struggled to put money away for the future. It was only after securing my current position several years ago that My Lovely Wife and I were able to begin building some long-term savings. But, like most of our peers, we’ve invested too little, too late to ensure that at some future date we’ll be able to pay the bills without a steady paycheck.

About 45 percent of our boomer compatriots have no retirement savings, according to a 2019 survey by the Insured Retirement Institute, and Social Security offers scant financial comfort: The average monthly check is only about $1,500. The future is notably brighter for the 31 percent of retirees who receive a monthly pension from their former employers, but that cohort has been shrinking since 1982, when Congress amended federal tax laws to offer fewer incentives for companies to maintain defined benefit plans.

“We’ve probably peaked in terms of retirement security — and it’s not great,” Monique Morrissey of the Economic Policy Institute tells reporter Will Englund in the Washington Post. “And now it’s all downhill. Unless something changes, we’re going to start seeing much more hardship.”

So, I was intrigued by a recent study from Georgetown University’s Center for Retirement Initiatives (CRI) describing the benefits of broadening access to retirement savings accounts for employees at all stages in their working lives. Currently, companies employing some 40 percent of the nation’s private-sector workers — 57.3 million people — offer no way to save. Mandating such options, while exempting small firms and making employer financial contributions voluntary rather than mandatory, would help individuals build their retirement savings over the long term. One model suggests that as many as 40 million more workers would have accumulated retirement funds by 2040 if these accounts were made widely available.

“Addressing the retirement savings crisis can be done in a simple, cost-effective way using private-sector solutions paired with a national requirement for employers to provide options to their employees,” says CRI executive director Angela Antonelli. “Millions of American workers would benefit from universal access to Auto-IRAs, 401(k)s, or other savings arrangements.”

Those benefits would also accrue to the overall economy, Antonelli argues, by adding up to $96 million to the nation’s gross national product by 2040 and reducing federal and state financial assistance to cash-strapped retirees by some $8.7 billion. Ten states have already passed legislation requiring companies to provide these options, she notes, offering ample evidence of its salutary effects. “Our research shows how expanding universal access to the national level can make a profound difference in individual lives and the broader economy in a relatively short period of time.”

I can’t help but applaud Antonelli’s optimistic view, though it’s hard to imagine how folks toiling away for minimum wage at some fast-food joint would find enough surplus in their monthly income to sock anything away in a 401(k). If I’ve learned anything from 50-odd years in the workforce, it’s how hard it is to adhere to a budget — much less save for a rainy day — when the checks barely cover the rent and groceries.

Besides, work isn’t always about the money. My ancient résumé is littered with jobs I sought because they offered a fresh occupational challenge or the opportunity to contribute to some broader social mission. Long-term financial planning was never a primary consideration. As struggling boomer retiree Terry Koch, 69, explains in Englund’s Post feature, for many of our generation it was more about enjoyment than anything else.

“We were a people who said we kind of like to have job satisfaction up front,” he says. “And so we didn’t think about the long run of things. To not be thinking about the future, to be more of a Zen thing. . . . And it wasn’t pure hedonism. There was some purity. And we’re still very much that way. I would rather be happy today than miserable 25 years from now. And so I made choices based on that rather than on the economics, which, you know, one could argue fairly successfully that I made some pretty stupid decisions.”

Forced out of the job market by health issues, Koch and his 70-year-old wife, Nancy, live in a rent-subsidized apartment in West Allis, Wis., and subsist on about $2,500 in monthly Social Security income. About $1,500 of that goes for rent and Medicare supplemental insurance coverage. There’s no savings. Yet, they soldier on more enthusiastically than you might imagine. “You know,” Nancy says, “neither of us thought we’d be alive at this age.”

It’s a sentiment that crosses my mind more than occasionally these days, and it often reminds me of my immense good fortune. A leisurely retirement may not await me in the years ahead, but just knowing I’ve made it through another day sometimes feels like money in the bank.


Craig Cox
is an Experience Life deputy editor who explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

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