The number of dementia cases is set to triple by 2050 as populations around the world get older. However, age isn’t the only driver of cognitive decline. Research has also tied chilli peppers to a higher risk of the mind-robbing condition.
Whether you use it as a defining flavour for your curry or an extra fiery kick for your marinade, capsaicin is the main pungent ingredient in chilli that gives it its hot taste.
Sadly, for the lovers of heat out there, this chemical is also what’s been linked to cognitive decline.
Nutritionist Rory Batt said: “Capsaicin has been found in a couple of studies to lead to (neuronal) cell death through a phenomenon known as excitotoxicity.
“Basically, very high dose capsaicin can cause an excessive and prolonged release of cellular calcium via activating a receptor called TRPV1, which initiates a cascade of events eventually leading to cell death. This is known as excitotoxicity.
“Because cognitive decline is in part underpinned by neurodegeneration (the death of neuronal cells), then there is possibility capsaicin could play a role [in cognitive decline] via this mechanism.”
Furthermore, the nutritionist isn’t the only one to highlight the potentially “destructive” effects of chillies.
According to research, published in the journal Nutrients, the spicy ingredient could almost double your risk of dementia.
Looking at more than 4,852 Chinese adults, the researchers determined that eating more than 50 grams of chilli a day was associated with an increased risk.
The participants’ chilli intake was assessed by a three-day food record during home visits.
Although the research has placed a red flag on chillies, the researchers also shared that further studies are needed to draw a firm conclusion.
However, you might not want to throw out your chilli stash just yet, according to Batt.
The nutritionist explained that moderate consumption of the spicy ingredient has neutral effects on cognition.
What’s more, he even suggested that consuming between one to 20 grams a day might offer some benefits.
Batt said: “It is very likely that the dose makes the poison. A little is protective, too much destructive.
“The right amount of TRPV1 activation and calcium release from capsaicin is actually responsible for a lot of very beneficial effects (but as we know from above too much could lead to cell death-excitotoxicity).
“There is good reason to believe that capsaicin is good for cognitive health (in the right doses).”
The reason why it’s so difficult to draw a conclusion on the spicy food comes down to the type of research looking at chillies and dementia.
Dr Louise Durrant, Nutrition Communications Manager, British Nutrition Foundation, said: “The scientific research looking at potential associations between chilli intake and cognitive decline has its limitations.
“It is mostly based on observational data which cannot tell us whether a specific food is the direct cause of a health outcome such as cognitive decline, and also provides no clear indication of the mechanisms behind how chilli consumption could be linked to cognitive function.
“The evidence available to date does not indicate a need to change our average consumption of chilli for the sake of our cognitive health.”
However, if you want to play it extra safe, you could follow Batt’s advice of sticking to a dose between one and 20 grams of chilli per day.