You can stop guilting yourself out of that second cup of coffee every morning. There’s growing evidence that a daily jolt of java may be a healthy habit, thanks to its ability to keep heart vessels clear and lower the risk of Type 2 diabetes, as well as its cancer-fighting antioxidants. Now there’s even better news: coffee appears to help combat aging.
A new study that focused on the cells of coffee drinkers and non–coffee drinkers found that older people who consumed more caffeine tended to have lower levels of inflammation–the culprit behind a number of chronic diseases associated with aging, including certain cancers, joint disorders and even Alzheimer’s. In the study, people who drank the equivalent of five or more cups of coffee a day showed very low levels of inflammatory factors in their blood. When the scientists studied their gene activity, they also found that genes linked to inflammation were less active than the same genes in people who didn’t drink as much.
Caffeine, the scientists suspect, turns off the pathway to inflammation almost altogether. That’s especially beneficial when it comes to combatting cellular aging, because inflammation isn’t regulated as well as it is in a younger body. “Clearly, in aging, something is breaking down, and we become less effective at managing this inflammation,” says Mark Davis, director of the Institute for Immunity, Transplantation and Infection at Stanford University and one of the study’s primary authors. Caffeine, then, seems to undo some of the disruption caused by aging.
The key, the researchers say, will be to figure out when the inflammatory response starts to spiral out of control–if they can figure that out, they may be able to get ahead of it sans coffee. The scientists are currently conducting another study that may help; they are hoping to analyze the immune systems of 1,000 people. That information will create a reference range of inflammation at various life stages that could tell people if their levels are normal–or if they are at higher risk of developing chronic conditions. If they are, they might consider adding (or keeping up with) their coffee habit.
And in the meantime, for most of us anyway, a second cup certainly can’t hurt.
This appears in the January 30, 2017 issue of TIME.