A study involving more than 80,000 women over a period of more than 20 years showed those who consumed several cups a day were much less likely to suffer a clot on the brain. The finding came as a surprise to researchers who had originally set out to investigate reports that the beverage increased the risk of a stroke.
In a report on their findings, published in the journal Circulation, they said: "Long-term coffee consumption was not associated with an increased risk of stroke in women. In contrast, it may modestly reduce the risk."
Although the study was carried out in women, it is thought that the benefits would probably apply to men too. Experts are not sure why coffee has its protective effect but say it could be due to the antioxidant content of the drink. Researchers stressed that the protective effect of coffee is only found in those who are already relatively healthy. Patients with existing heart disease or blood pressure problems are unlikely to benefit by drinking more coffee, they said.
Every year an estimated 150,000 people in the UK have a stroke, with about a third of them dying within the first 10 days and another third likely to be left disabled and needing rehabilitation. A quarter of a million people are living with long-term disability as a result of stroke in the UK and strokes are estimated to cost the NHS £2.3 billion a year.
Previous studies have shown coffee can protect against gout, memory loss, liver disease and even some cancers. But it has in the past been linked with heart disease and can also raise the risk of miscarriages in pregnant women.
In the latest study, experts at the Autonomous University of Madrid, Spain, analysed the drinking habits of 83,000 women who were tracked for 24 years. The results showed the more coffee the women drank, the lower their risk of suffering a stroke.