Death by caffeine: an eye-catching headline when a coroner recently declared a South Carolina teen died from excessive caffeine consumption. In the span of two hours, according to reports, the 16 year-old drank a large Diet Mountain Dew, a cafe latte from McDonald’s and an energy drink, causing a “caffeine-induced cardiac event” leading to a probable arrhythmia.
The news surprised many experts in the medical community, including Joseph Garry, M.D., associate professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Minnesota Medical School.
“Deaths from caffeine ingestion are actually quite rare,” Garry explained. “However, this is entirely preventable and as such, any preventable death is tragic.”
While several studies have tried to find a link between caffeine consumption and mortality in adults, results remain inconclusive. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found no direct connection between coffee consumption and the risk of death. In fact, a 2011 study, researchers found moderate coffee consumption – about three to five cups per day – was actually associated with lower risk of cardiovascular disease, and heavy coffee consumption – more or equal to 6 cups per day – didn’t change the risk one way or another.
This research, however, involved adults. Even less is known about the effects of caffeine in children or teens.
“We do know that in general, children and teens are much more sensitive to the effects of drugs,” Garry said. “This would stand to reason caffeine’s effects would be similar though we don’t have data specifically just yet.”
In 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics advised teens avoid consumption of energy drinks due to caffeine concerns. University of Minnesota experts recommend children and even teens should avoid caffeine consumption as much as possible.
That concept was explored recently in a study published March of 2016 in The Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. The target focus group was adolescents. Researchers found the majority of 166 9th and 10th graders polled listed reasons for using caffeine as providing energy, taste, and image enhancement. The research also found teens had easy access to it. Teens seemed aware of the negative health effects associated with caffeine even though they weren’t aware of the recommended consumption levels. Researchers concluded further education is needed to correct the misconceptions many adolescents have about caffeine, many which they seem to obtain from media and advertising and parental role modeling.
In adults, it is recommended caffeine consumption be limited to less than 400 mg per day. However, if one experiences side effects including increased excitement, agitation, anxiety, or insomnia, experts advise decreasing consumption. Other side effects include tachycardia, or an abnormally rapid heart rate, increased sweating and dizziness. Too much caffeine can also interfere with healthy living habits, for example leading to a decreased appetite.
“Caffeine is a known stimulant and performance enhancing drug,” Garry said.
This means for some accustomed to regular caffeine consumption, abrupt discontinuation can cause with-drawl symptoms, like orneriness and headaches. Fortunately, Garry stresses that caffeine is not a necessity.
“Incorporating a healthy diet, healthy restorative sleep patterns and daily exercise can supplant any perceived ‘necessity’ for caffeine use as a stimulant,” said Garry.