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MILWAUKEE - After years of waffling research on coffee and health, and even worries that java might raise the risk of heart disease, a big study finds the opposite: Coffee drinkers are a little more likely to live longer. Regular or decaf doesn’t matter.

The study of 400,000 people is the largest done on the issue.

“There may actually be a modest benefit of coffee drinking,’’ said lead researcher Neal Freedman of the National Cancer Institute. It’s not that earlier studies were wrong. There is evidence that coffee can raise blood pressure and LDL, or bad cholesterol, at least short-term, and those can increase the risk of heart disease.

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Even in the new study, it first seemed coffee drinkers were more likely to die at any given time. But they also tended to smoke, drink more alcohol, eat more red meat, and exercise less than non-coffee-drinkers. Once researchers took that into account, a pattern emerged: Each cup of coffee per day nudged up the chances of living longer.

The study was done by the National Institutes of Health and AARP and were published in Thursday’s New England Journal of Medicine. It doesn’t prove that coffee makes people live longer, only that the two seem related.

The study began in 1995, and by 2008, about 52,000 of the 402,260 participants had died. Compared with those who drank no coffee, men who had two or three cups a day were 10 percent less likely to die at any age. For women, it was 13 percent.

Even a single cup a day seemed to lower risk 6 percent in men and 5 percent in women. The strongest effect was in women who had four or five cups a day - a 16 percent lower risk of death. But none of these are big numbers, and Freedman can’t say how much extra life coffee might buy.

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