August 7, 2007/Bloomberg News -- Drinking coffee may help mentally healthy women retain verbal-retrieval skills, delaying symptoms of mild forms of cognitive decline, according to a study in France.

Women 65 or older who drank four or more cups of the beverage a day were 30% less likely to fail to recall words from memory than women with lower levels of consumption, the researchers reported in today's issue of Neurology. The study did not find the same results in men, and coffee failed to reduce the rate of Alzheimer's disease for the women.

Further studies are needed to learn more about the effects of coffee before it can be recommended as a public-health measure, according to the researchers. An earlier study found a similar pattern for tobacco use: It may delay signs of cognitive decline while not preventing diseases such as Alzheimer's.

Coffee "may prolong a little the period of independence" for people who develop severe memory loss, study lead author Karen Ritchie, a researcher at the National Institute of Health and Medical Research in Montpellier, France, said in an e-mail.

At age 80 and older, the heavier drinkers of coffee were 70% less likely to show memory loss on tests, according to the research. Coffee and tea provided the same effects, the researchers said. The study did not include caffeinated sodas or hot chocolate.

Women who drank more than three cups of coffee a day appeared to enjoy the greatest delays in mental decline, while drinking fewer than two cups daily conferred "no significant protective effect at all," the researchers said.

Caffeine, the active ingredient in coffee, had already been shown to increase brain activity and reduce damage to receptors from Alzheimer's disease, the most common cause of dementia in older people.

More than 7,000 elderly people in Bordeaux, Dijon and Montpellier took memory tests during a four-year period. They were asked to perform math problems, copy drawings and repeat lists of words. The women who drank the fewest cups of coffee had the biggest declines from test to test.

From the August 13, 2007, Prepared Foods e-Flash