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Deli Meats, Bacon May Be Bad for the Brain

April 30, 2021

Eating lots of bacon, hot dogs, cold cuts, salami and other processed meats may raise the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, according to a new report. The findings add to growing body of evidence that what you eat may help to keep the brain young.

For the study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, scientists analyzed data involving 493,888 men and women living in Britain. They ranged in age from 40 to 69. Over the next eight years, 1,006 of them developed Alzheimer’s disease, and 490 developed vascular dementia.

The researchers found that the more processed meats someone tended to eat on a regular basis, the greater their risk that they would go on to develop Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. The scientists controlled for a variety of factors that may influence Alzheimer’s risk, including their level of physical activity, other categories of food they ate (e.g., fruits, vegetable, fish), how much formal education they had, and whether they carried the APOE-E4 gene, the main genetic factor contributing to Alzheimer’s risk. Eating processed meat was independently associated with an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

The study found only an association with increased dementia risk and could not prove cause and effect. Still, eating processed meats has been associated with an increased risk of other diseases, including colon cancer, and it may be best to limit their consumption in general.

Processed meats refer to any meat, including beef, pork and poultry, that has been salted, smoked, cured or otherwise processed in order to preserve the meat or enhance its flavor. Hot dogs, ham, bacon, turkey bacon, corned beef, pastrami, salami, sausages, pepperoni, bologna and other deli or canned meats are all considered processed meats.

The findings are consistent with earlier research showing links between processed meats and dementia risk. Last year, for example, French researchers reported that diets high in processed meats and starchy foods, especially when they are eaten together, are tied to an increased risk of dementia. Starchy foods, high in carbohydrates, include cookies, cakes, potatoes and bread. 

Conversely, heart-healthy diets, such as the traditional Mediterranean diet high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fish, with little meat, has been tied to a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Many factors besides diet play an important role in who ultimately develops Alzheimer’s disease, including the genes you inherit, your lifestyle (e.g., level of physical activity, social activities), education level and daily mental activities, and advancing age. Still, the findings add to growing recognition that what you eat may play an important role not just in heart health, but in brain health as well.

By ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by Marc Flajolet, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University.

Huifeng Zhang, Darren C Greenwood, Harvey A Risch, et al: “Meat consumption and risk of incident dementia: cohort study of 493,888 UK Biobank participants.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, March 2021

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