New research has revealed a possible link between the regular consumption of processed meat and increased risk of dementia.
Researchers from the University of Leeds’ Nutritional Epidemiology Group found that in a group of around 500,000 people, those who consumed around 25g of processed meat in a day – roughly one rasher of bacon – were 44% more likely to develop dementia in their later years.
The findings, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, were discovered while researching the link between meat consumption and dementia, a condition which affects around 5-8% of people around the world.
Lead researcher Huifeng Zhang, a PhD student from Leeds’ School of Food Science and Nutrition, said, “Worldwide, the prevalence of dementia is increasing and diet as a modifiable factor could play a role.
With the help of a large health database called UK Biobank, researchers had access to the genetic and health information of half a million UK study participants. Included in this data was how often participants consumed different kinds of meat, ranging to never to once, or more often, daily. Participants were aged between 40 and 69 at the time the data was collected between 2006 and 2010.
Over an average of eight years of follow-up, 2,896 cases of dementia developed among the participants. Those who developed dementia were also more economically deprived, less educated, more likely to smoke, less physically active, more likely to have stroke and family dementia history, and more likely to be carriers of a gene that is highly associated with dementia.
Within the study participants, there were also more males diagnosed with dementia than females. Males within the researched participants were also more likely to have consumed more processed meats, and were more likely to be less educated, smokers, overweight or obese, had lower intakes of vegetables and fruits, and had higher intakes of energy, protein and fat (including saturated fat).
While the study did not specifically investigate the effects of a vegan or vegetarian diet on increasing the risk factor of developing dementia, the data used in the study did include those who didn’t consume meat.
There is, however, some hope for meat lovers. The findings also showed that eating some unprocessed red meat, like beef, pork or veal, could have a protective effect. Participants who consumed 50g a day of unprocessed red meat were 19% less likely to develop dementia.
“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,” explained Ms Zhang.
“Anything we can do to explore potential risk factors for dementia may help us to reduce rates of this debilitating condition. This analysis is a first step towards understanding whether what we eat could influence that risk,” said research supervisor, Professor Janet Cade.
Reactions and comments from experts in the UK have recommended taking the early results of this study with caution, pointing out some deficits in the data.
“The authors themselves note that other factors, like the higher salt content in processed meat, might explain their most notable observation,” Professor Paul Matthews, Director of the UK Dementia Research Institute at Imperial College London, commented.
“Nonetheless, the results highlight that lifestyle or environmental factors can influence the risk of developing dementia. However, if we are to reduce risks by changing aspects of lifestyle or the environment, it is important that we understand how they might affect disease.”
Meat consumption overall has been linked to increased dementia risk in the past, and while this study shows that there may be a link between the two, more research is needed to be able to conclusively determine a solid link.