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Processed meat increases consumers' risk of dementia, study finds

Following a healthier diet can have long-lasting cognitive benefits

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Photo (c) Curly Courland Photografy - Getty Images
Eating a lot of processed meats has been found to cause several adverse health effects. Now, researchers from the University of Leeds are exploring how unhealthy diet choices can affect consumers’ cognitive functioning

Their study showed that eating large quantities of red and processed meats may increase the risk of developing dementia

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

Cognitive risks of an unhealthy diet

The researchers analyzed data from nearly 500,000 people enrolled in the U.K. Biobank to determine what effect processed meats had on long-term dementia risk. All of the participants were between 40 and 69 years old, and they recorded the frequency with which they consumed red and processed meats, as well as what kind of meat they were eating. 

The study showed that eating red and processed meats in excess were associated with an increased risk of dementia. Participants who ate 25 grams of processed meat each day were nearly 45 percent more likely to develop dementia. 

The researchers learned that several factors impacted the participants’ diet choices. Men were more likely than women to eat more processed meat, as were those who were overweight, smoked, or followed generally unhealthy diets. 

Certain factors increased the participants’ likelihood of developing dementia. For example, men were more likely than women to struggle with cognitive function. Those who didn’t exercise or had a genetic predisposition for the condition were also more likely to develop it.

Moderation is key

While eating processed meat in excess was associated with an increased risk of dementia, some red meats had protective benefits for consumers’ long-term cognitive health. Eating 50 grams of things like veal or pork per day was associated with a 20 percent lower risk of dementia. 

Moving forward, the researchers hope that more work is done in this area because knowing the risk factors can help prevent dementia among more vulnerable populations. 

“Anything we can do to explore potential risk factors for dementia may help us to reduce rates of this debilitating condition,” said researcher Janet Cade. “This analysis is a first step towards understanding whether what we eat could influence that risk.” 

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