Fact/Fiction: Does eating spicy food every day raise the risk of dementia?

Many news sites got hot under the collar about the potential link between chilli and dementia. Should we be staying off the spicy stuff?

How it was told

As the UK was hit with a heatwave, it was the heat in our food that was making headlines last week.

Reports warned that eating more than 50g of chilli per day could increase the risk of memory loss later in life.

That will be tough to swallow for those who love to test their tastebuds.

And it received coverage from several British news outlets as well as various publications from all over the world.

Mail Online warned: “Think twice before adding extra spice” in their version of the story, which played up the link between chilli and memory loss.

The Daily Mirror, however, took a stronger approach to this, opting to go further than declining cognitive functions and instead linked spicy food consumption to dementia. Their headline read: “People who eat spicy food every day have higher risk of dementia, study warns”.

The Sun covered the report in a brief story in the newspaper, opting for: “Dementia ‘chilli link’” while Yahoo! also wrote about the study with “Chilli lovers might have a higher risk of cognitive decline, finds new study”, credited to news agency AFP.

As for Express Online, they went for the elusive: “Dementia diet: Eating this food linked to faster cognitive decline – should you avoid it?” But, rest assured, they’re still talking about chilli and, fortunately, we’re going to answer that question below.

Facts. Checked

It’s way too early to make these claims – but, on the whole, the news outlets do a good job of addressing this when you get beyond the headlines.

The story comes from a study led by the University of South Australia and Qatar University that analysed 15 years of data on 4,582 Chinese adults over the age of 55.

It is true that researchers found that those who consumed in excess of 50g of chilli per day saw their risk of memory decline and poor cognition double.

And the level of decline was even more significant for those who were slim.

However, it should be noted that the data used for the study was self-reported, while chilli intake was assessed by a three-day food record. This is hardly comprehensive and reliable data to underline the link between chilli consumption and memory loss.

The study followed previous reports that found chilli consumption to be beneficial for body weight and blood pressure.

The new research adds to that body of work on the food, but it does warn that more work is to be done: “Further investigation is warranted to explore these findings. Moreover, the long-term effects of chilli on cognition are unclear.”

This point is hardly made clear with the headlines.

To their credit, the Daily Mirror and Yahoo! do finish their articles with an appreciation that there is more research required whereas The Sun’s article was too short to include the warning.

Express Online and Mail Online did carry a more in-depth warning from the Alzheimer’s Society’s Dr Clare Walton. That pointed out that the Daily Mirror was wrong to carry a link to dementia, saying: “This study didn’t assess dementia either – it only looked at memory and maths test results.”

So, for now, feel free to spice up your food.

Illustration: Miles Cole