NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – Female coffee drinkers can enjoy their java in good health — at least when it comes to stroke risk, new research from Spain shows.

Dr. Esther Lopez-Garcia of the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid and her colleagues found that over the course of more than two decades, women who drank coffee several times a week were actually somewhat less likely to have a stroke than those who drank coffee less than once a month. But coffee didn’t seem to affect stroke risk for women with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or type 2 diabetes.

Evidence to date suggests that drinking coffee doesn’t harm the heart, and may actually protect against type 2 diabetes, Lopez-Garcia and her team note in the March 3 issue of Circulation. But there is little information on how coffee might affect stroke risk, especially in women.

To investigate, the researchers looked at 83,076 women participating in the Nurse’s Health Study who reported their coffee consumption in 1980 and again every 2 to 4 years thereafter up to 2004. During that time, 2,280 women had strokes.

Coffee drinkers were more likely to smoke and to drink alcohol, the researchers found. But once they accounted for these and other relevant factors, they found women who drank two or three cups of coffee daily were 19 percent less likely to have a stroke than women who drank a cup a month or less. Women who had four or more cups were at 20 percent lower risk than those who consumed the least coffee.

Decaf was also linked to a lower stroke risk, but tea and soft drinks containing caffeine were not, suggesting that there is something about coffee itself, not caffeine, which might be protective.

The protective effect of coffee was particularly strong among women who had quit smoking or who had never been smokers. When the researchers limited their analysis to women with hypertension, they found that coffee consumption wasn’t related to stroke risk; the same was true for women with high cholesterol levels and those with diabetes.

There are several possible ways that coffee could protect against stroke; for example, by reducing inflammation, improving insulin sensitivity, or preventing oxidative damage, Lopez-Garcia and her team note.

They conclude: “Our data support the hypothesis that components of coffee other than caffeine may lower the risk of stroke, although the association was modest and the biological mechanism is unclear.”

SOURCE: Circulation, March 3, 2009.