Is spicy food associated with the risk of dementia?

Research in a Chinese population has found an interesting correlation between chili pepper intake and an increased risk of cognitive decline.

Eating a lot of hot peppers on a regular basis will increase a person’s risk of cognitive decay.

Most populations around the world are adding spicy peppers to their local dishes to improve the flavor and make culinary experience more punchy.

But are spicy peppers safe, or do they pose any health hazards? The world’s spiciest peppers, like the Carolina Reaper, could cause serious, immediate harm.

For example, a man from the United States who ate a Carolina Reaper as part of a challenge in a hot pepper eating contest ended up with a thunderclap headache in emergency room in 2018.

However for the extreme versions of this hot food, most people won’t reach. Most cuisines instead use much milder varieties— some of which are still very spicy— such as jalapeños, cherry peppers, cayenne peppers, Scotch bonnets, and habaneros.

Previous research into the potential health effects of chili peppers has usually produced positive results. For example, a large cohort study from 2017 found eating hot red chili peppers was associated with a lower risk of mortality.

Capsaicin is the principal active ingredient in hot peppers, and the one that makes them spicy, so it is most likely that this compound plays a leading role in the potential health impact of hot peppers.

Powered by Rubicon Project No studies in humans had seriously assessed how these hot vegetables could affect cognitive decline, despite promising findings about the relationship between chili peppers and mortality.

Now, the results of a longitudinal cohort study in a large Chinese population indicate that consuming regularly large amounts of chili pepper may exacerbate cognitive decline, increasing the risk of dementia for a individual.

The work— which was outlined in a study paper featured in the Nutrients journal— included 4,582 Chinese participants aged over 55. Zumin Shi, Ph.D., from the University of Qatar, in Doha led the research team.

Higher risk at over 50 grams of chili per day

“Chili consumption was found to be beneficial for body weight and blood pressure in our previous studies. However, in this study, we found adverse effects on cognition among older adults,” notes Zumin.

The researchers found that people who regularly ate more than 50 grams of chili a day had almost twice the chance of cognitive decline of people who ate less than that amount of chili.

“The consumption of chili, derived from dietary surveys, included both fresh and dried chili peppers, yet did not include sweet capsicum or black pepper,” the researchers reported in their report.

The team also observed that participants who usually ate more chili appeared to have lower financial income and lower body mass index (BMI) as well. But they were interested in more physical activity compared to people who consume less chili pepper and fat intake was equivalent to the two groups.

The researchers suggest that people with a healthy BMI may have a higher sensitivity to capsaicin relative to those who are clinically overweight. The increased sensitivity, adds the team, may also explain why these individuals may have a higher risk of cognitive decline.

Zumin and his colleagues have also seen that people who ate more chili tend to be younger than people who did not eat chili. “In addition,” the researchers write, “there was no correlation in this population between chili consumption and BMI or hypertension, and so it is likely that older people in this population avoided chili consumption due to chronic disease.”

Another factor in how much chili participants consumed was their level of education, which seemed to play a role. The researchers note in the conclusion of the study paper:

“In our study, there was a significant difference in chili intake among people with different education levels. Therefore, it is possible that the confounding effect of education may still contribute to the relationship between chili intake and cognitive function.”

For this reason, researchers suggest that further trials should aim to assess the link between the level of education, the intake of chili, and the risk of cognitive decline.

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