Hold the bacon: Processed meat greatly increases chances of having dementia

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LEEDS, United Kingdom — Can a slice of bacon a day lead to dementia later in life? Researchers from the University of Leeds say eating just a small amount of processed meat each day significantly increases the risk of mental decline.

Their study of nearly 500,000 people in the United Kingdom finds consuming 25 grams daily — about two crispy strips of bacon — raises dementia risk by 44 percent. These products include bacon, sausages, canned meats, and cured items like salami. On the other hand, study authors reveal eating unprocessed red meat may actually lower the chances of developing the disease. Consuming 50 grams of meats like beef, pork, and veal contributed to a 19-percent decrease in dementia risk.

The team discovered the connection while examining the link between eating meat overall and dementia onset. The condition affects between five and eight percent of all adults over 60 years-old, with Alzheimer’s disease being the most common variety.

“Worldwide, the prevalence of dementia is increasing and diet as a modifiable factor could play a role,” lead researcher and PhD student Huifeng Zhang says in a university release. “Our research adds to the growing body of evidence linking processed meat consumption to increased risk of a range of non-transmissible diseases.”

‘Lower intakes of unprocessed red meat could be beneficial for health’

Study authors looked at data from the UK Biobank, a database with detailed genetic and health information on 493,888 adults between 40 and 69 years-old. The report includes how often the participants consume different kinds of meat each day; providing six options ranging from never to more than once daily. Although the study doesn’t specifically look at vegans and vegetarians, it does account for people who say they don’t eat red meat.

Over an eight-year follow-up period, 2,896 individuals developed dementia. Researchers say the patients were usually older, less financially stable, and less educated. They also were more likely to smoke, be less physically active, have a family history of stroke or dementia, and carry a gene with a strong connection to the disease. More men than women also developed dementia during the course of the study.

Overall, people with a genetic risk for dementia were three to six times more likely to develop the disease. Despite those findings, researchers reveal the risk tied to eating processed meat stayed the same regardless of a patient’s genetic predisposition.

Study authors find people who consumed more processed meat were more likely to be less educated and men. They also were more likely to smoke, be overweight or obese, eat fewer greens, and consume more protein and fat.

Previous studies have discovered a link between eating meat and mental decline. Researchers say this study, however, is the first to examine specific meat types and their link to the disease.

Around 50 million people worldwide deal with some form of dementia. Around 10 million new cases will be diagnosed every year, with Alzheimer’s making up more than half of those.

“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,” Zhang adds.

“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,” concludes Professor Janet Cade.

The study appears in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.