Is Eating Processed Meat a Risk Factor for Dementia?

Peter Russell

March 22, 2021

Health experts have urged caution in interpreting a study that suggested eating processed meat could be a potential risk factor for dementia.

Research by scientists from the University of Leeds suggested that consuming a 25g serving of processed meat, the equivalent of one rasher of bacon, was associated with a 44% increased risk of incident all-cause dementia.

In contrast, eating some unprocessed red meat could be protective against dementia, researchers said. They found that consuming 50g a day of unprocessed red meat, such as beef, pork, or veal, was associated with a 19% reduced risk of all-cause dementia.

The study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition,  found that having the APOE ε4 genotype increased the risk of dementia by four to six times but did not significantly modify the associations between meat eating and dementia risk.

UK Biobank Data

The research was based on data from 493,888 participants aged 40 to 69 enrolled in the UK Biobank. 

Among the participants, there were 2896 cases of dementia during 8 years of follow up. More men than women were diagnosed with dementia in the study population.

These individuals were generally older, more economically deprived, less educated, more likely to smoke, less physically active, more likely to have a history of stroke and dementia, and more likely to carry the APOE ε4 gene, the researchers said.

Individuals with the highest consumption of all meat and processed meat were more likely to be men, less educated, smokers, overweight or obese, and had lower intakes of vegetables and fruits and higher intakes of energy, protein, and fat.

Huifeng Zhang, a PhD student, who led the research, said: "Our research adds to the growing body of evidence linking processed meat consumption to increased risk of a range of non-transmissible diseases."

The authors concluded that more specific public health guidance could be provided to differentiate between types of meat. However, they acknowledged that further research would be needed to confirm their findings.
 

Experts Urge Caution 

Commenting on the study to the Science Media Centre, health experts and statisticians said the results should be interpreted with care.

"It's very important not to read too much into this study," said Kevin McConway, emeritus professor of applied statistics at the Open University. "The trouble is that people who eat different amounts of processed meat also differ in many other ways apart from their meat consumption."

Prof McConway added: "The study can't show that processed meat actually causes an increase in dementia risk, any more than it can show that eating non-processed red meat can cause dementia risk to decrease. The findings are interesting, but they don't establish anything for certain."

Prof Clive Ballard, pro-vice chancellor at the University of Exeter, agreed. "Although this study will be important when we are in a position to combine the results from multiple studies, as the study is small for this type of work, we should definitely not over-interpret the results," he said. "We should not assume from this research that one rasher of bacon a day increases your risk of dementia by 44% – it is simply impossible to demonstrate that in a study like this."

Susan Jebb, professor of diet and population health at the University of Oxford, said "a 44% increase in a very small number of cases is a small absolute risk".

Prof Paul Matthews, director of the UK Dementia Research Institute at Imperial College London, said: "Interventions for reducing disease risk must be targeted appropriately to avoid more harm than benefit. It is premature to propose changing dietary recommendations on the basis of associations like these alone."

Robert Howard, professor of old age psychiatry at University College London, commented: "As a doctor who works clinically with people with dementia and conducts research into potential dementia treatments, the data wouldn't persuade me to give up my breakfast bacon."

Meat consumption and risk of incident dementia: cohort study of 493,888 UK Biobank participants, Huifeng Zhang et al., American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. doi: https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/nqab028

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