Scientists from Qatar University have published research suggesting that eating spicy chillies could trigger memory loss. According to a new study of over 4,500 participants, consuming around 50g of chilli per day could make you twice as likely to complain about having a poor memory, while high chilli consumption has also been linked to a 56 per cent decline in memory over a 15 year period.
The team, who were supplemented by researchers from the University of Southern Australia, were unable to explain precisely why the link appears to exist. However, researchers have pointed to the fact that high doses of capsaicin, the chemical that gives peppers their heat, have been used to “deactivate” pain-causing nerves, suggesting that this may be a factor. However they have also emphasised that the theory is currently “highly speculative”.
One of the most seemingly counterintuitive aspects of the research is that many people have historically held chillies to be an extremely healthy ingredient. According to the Daily Mail, for instance, “Chili has been linked to a reduced risk of obesity, high blood pressure and even an early death”. Indeed, lead author Dr Zumin Shi admitted that “Chili consumption was found to be beneficial for body weight and blood pressure in our previous studies.” However, she went on to emphasise that, in this most recent study, the team “found adverse effects on cognition among older adults.”
Due to the high levels of spicy food consumption in the area, the study was focused around the Sichuan region of China. As the authors explained, the data was drawn from “4852 adults attending the China Health and Nutrition Survey during 1991 and 2006.” According to the abstract, “Cognitive function was assessed in 1997, 2000, 2004 and 2006. In total, 3302 completed cognitive screening tests in at least two surveys. Chili intake was assessed by a 3-day food record during home visits in each survey between 1991 and 2006.” The somewhat surprising conclusion was that “The longitudinal data indicate that higher chili intake is positively associated with cognitive decline in Chinese adults in both genders.”
Despite the apparently revelatory nature of the research, there are some caveats. Commenting on the findings, stated, Dr Clare Walton, research manager at Alzheimer's Society, said: “With global dementia figures rising, understanding risk factors, especially those relevant to large populations like China, is certainly a hot topic. But there were so many differences between the chilli lovers and abstainers in this study it doesn't give any conclusive evidence that eating spicy food will increase your risk of dementia.” She went on to add, “This study didn't assess dementia either – it only looked at memory and maths test results. “Further research is needed to confirm a link between chilli and dementia so, for now, there's no need to avoid the hot sauce.”