What to Know About the Latest Study Linking Processed Meats & Dementia

What to Know About the Latest Study Linking Processed Meats & Dementia


Illustration for article titled Do Processed Meats Cause Dementia?

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At this point, it can be easy to ignore headlines on the latest studies claiming that a particular food is “bad” for you—or, conversely, has been canonized as a “superfood.” Most articles on research demonizing a certain kind of food typically follow a pattern: identifying a particular condition everyone’s afraid of, looking at preexisting sets of self-reported data (courtesy of a biobank or other long-term observational study), noticing a possible link between the food in question and the disease, and concluding by pointing out that correlation doesn’t always equal causation, and encouraging people to adopt healthier eating habits regardless.

Well, another one of those studies was published today, and it addresses the classic question of whether eating meat—especially those meats that are highly processed—can increase our risk of dementia.

What this study found

The latest research on the hot dog-brain connection comes to us from the University of Leeds’s Nutritional Epidemiology Group in the UK, and was published today in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Using data collected between 2006 and 2010 from nearly 500,000 people aged 40 to 69 that are part of the UK Biobank, the researchers took a look at whether there was potential link between consumption of meat and the development of dementia.

While this isn’t a new research question, the authors believe that theirs is the first large-scale study of participants over time to examine a link between specific types and amounts of meats consumed, and the risk of developing the disease.

The researchers found that people who ate 25g of processed meat a day (the equivalent of approximately one slice of thick-cut bacon) had a 44% increased risk of developing dementia.

What to know about the findings

Of course, like the results of similar studies, these should be taken with a grain of salt. First, the findings don’t provide direct evidence that eating processed meat causes dementia—just that a particular pattern emerged in the data. Moreover, this was an observational study using self-reported data from a biobank—not a controlled experiment.

Out of the nearly half-million participants, 2,896 cases of dementia were diagnosed over an average of eight years of observation—with men being diagnosed more than women. Based on the other data available via the biobank, researchers also noted that the people who developed dementia were generally older, less financially secure, less educated, more likely to smoke, less physically active, more likely to have stroke history and family dementia history, and more likely to be carriers of a gene highly associated with dementia.

Meanwhile, the researchers also noted that the people who ate more processed meat also tended to be male, less educated, smokers, overweight or obese, ate fewer vegetables and fruits, and had higher intakes of protein and fat (including saturated fat).

The takeaway

Per the study’s lead researcher, Huifeng Zhang, a PhD student from the University of Leeds’ School of Food Science and Nutrition:

Further confirmation is needed, but the direction of effect is linked to current healthy eating guidelines suggesting lower intakes of unprocessed red meat could be beneficial for health.

In other words, in order to make a claim like “processed meats cause dementia,” additional, more-targeted research needs to take place. And in the mean time, we should probably cut back on eating foods we already know we should be enjoying in moderation.



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