One Slice of Ham a Day Increases Dementia Risk, Study Finds

Annie Hayes
·2-min read
Photo credit: LauriPatterson - Getty Images
Photo credit: LauriPatterson - Getty Images

Eating 25 grams of processed meat each day – the equivalent of a single slice of ham or rasher of bacon – increases your risk of dementia by 44 per cent, according to the results of a study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. But hold fire before you clear out the fridge, because the type of meat matters.

After analysing reams of data from UK Biobank, spanning around 494,000 people aged 40 to 69, researchers from Leeds University were able to identify an association between different meat categories and dementia risk. When it comes to brain health, there appears to be a stark difference between sausages and steak.

In total, around 2,900 participants were diagnosed with dementia during the eight-year follow-up period. While processed meat – burgers, chicken nuggets, kebabs – was strongly implicated with the disease, there was no significant link found between dementia risk and total meat consumption, or chicken intake.

And here's where it gets even more interesting: the risk actually declined among those who regularly ate unprocessed red meat – beef, pork, veal and sheep, for example – suggesting it may have a protective effect. Those who ate 50g of non-processed red meat each day were 19 per cent less likely to develop dementia.

“Our findings suggest that consumption of processed meat may increase risk of incident dementia, and unprocessed red meat intake may be associated with lower risks,” the authors wrote. However, it's important to note that the research doesn't prove a cause-and-effect relationship.

Identifying a link between meat consumption and neurological disease doesn't necessarily mean that one leads to the other. And since nutrition research relies on self-reported data – and people's diets and habits often change over time – this study is by no means the final word. But given that dementia is the leading cause of death in the UK, skipping the occasional sausage can't hurt.

“Worldwide, the prevalence of dementia is increasing and diet as a modifiable factor could play a role,” said lead author Huifeng Zhang, a PhD student from the University of Leeds’ School of Food Science and Nutrition. “Our research adds to the growing body of evidence linking processed meat consumption to increased risk of a range of non-transmissible diseases.”

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