Hey folks! We’re back with some neuroscience, thanks to my amazing friend (Ms. Adams), who always has interesting neuroscience questions for me. She tagged me on an article by NYPost on twitter and demanded some answers, so here we are! The article is titled ‘eating spicy foods could lead to dementia, study finds‘, and THAT right there almost gave me a panic attack, because I LOVE SPICY FOODS. I know better than to let a title like that intimidate me, so the neuroscientist kicked in, and I had to read both the article and the study to make my own conclusions. Before we get into the article, you’re probably wondering, what is Dementia?
Dementia is an overall term for a set of symptoms that are caused by disorders affecting the brain. Symptoms may include memory loss and difficulties with thinking, problem-solving or language, severe enough to reduce a person’s ability to perform everyday activities. A person with dementia may also experience changes in mood or behaviour. Dementia is progressive, which means the symptoms will gradually get worse as more brain cells become damaged and eventually die.
Source: Alzhiemer’s Society Canada
Basically, dementia is not a disease on its own, but rather a bunch of symptoms that are part of different diseases, with Alzheimer’s Disease being the most common one. Even though we lose brain cells and our brains don’t work like it used to as we get older, dementia is not a normal part of ageing. It happens when there are abnormal changes in the brain, and these changes cause a decline in memory, thinking, language and changes in behaviour. We call this cognitive decline, and it becomes so bad that patients are unable to function independently while it also affects their relationships negatively with the people around them. You can read more about dementia on The Dementia Society and Alzheimer’s Association if you’re interested.
There are risk factors that increase the chances of getting dementia, and these include diabetes, obesity, physical and mental inactivity, depression, smoking, low educational levels and diet. The question now is does having high spicy foods intake as a major part of our diet increase our chances of getting dementia?
The study that NYPost covered (High Chili Intake and Cognitive Function among 4582 Adults: An Open Cohort Study Over 15 Years) concluded that it does, but there are a few key points I’d like to state.
- First of all, the study was carried out in Chinese adults (average of 64 years old), so we can’t conclude that the results apply to everyone else because there are other factors that could be involved (e.g. different demographic, environmental and genetic factors).
- Secondly, although data collection happened over 15 years (1991-2006), the data on spicy food intake was collected as a three-day survey only 6 times over 15 years, so how is that a great measure for spicy food intake?
- Thirdly, they measured cognition using cognitive screening tests and also collected answers to the questions “how is your memory?” and “in the past twelve months, how has your memory changed?”. They found a relationship between high spicy food intake and low scores on the cognitive tests as well as self-reported poor memory. Even though there’s a relationship, it doesn’t mean causation and there are other factors that could interact with that relationship.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some strengths to the study. The fact that they had a 15-year-long study with a large number of participants (all 4,852 of them!) is something! They also made sure to adjust the spicy food intake measurements according to body mass index (BMI). BUT, these results are not generalizable because of the reasons I stated earlier. They even mentioned that there was a difference in spicy food intake among people with different education levels. Going back to the risk factors of dementia, what if the relationship they saw was due to education levels and not spicy food intake? They also weren’t able to explain how high spicy food intake might lead to dementia, especially since other studies have found that eating spicy foods is good for weight loss and lowering blood pressure.
Does eating spicy food lead to dementia?
As a neuroscientist: We are unable to conclude from this one study that eating spicy foods lead to dementia. We need further research that will be generalizable and a more robust body of evidence in this area.
As Wendy who loves eating spicy food: It doesn’t! But seriously, we’d never know until it’s proven! Since we know about the beneficial effects of spicy foods, let’s stick to that and hope that it isn’t doing us more harm than good.
Now I’m in the mood for some spicy pasta and tuna. What are you eating? Get your spice on!