That is, ‘dementia.’ Yes, thanks to some researchers eager to plow new ground, there’s now a new study claiming that cooking your meat makes you senile. Uh . . . I forget why, though.
Anyone who’s alive today has been witness to an entire lifetime of activist attacks on meat-eating, and if you’re a rancher, producer or processor, you’ve been one of the main targets of their ire.
Meat causes heart attacks and strokes — and cancer. Cholesterol is a cold-blooded killer. Saturated fat is totally unhealthy. Diabetes strikes meat-eaters more often than vegetarians.
For activists, the litany of alleged ill effects from consuming animal foods is endless.
Not to mention that the very business of raising cattle or pigs is destroying the entire planet at warp speed, according to the chorus of critics who constantly bash livestock production, meat and poultry processing and the 99.99 percent of foodservice that has built its business on preparing and serving meat and dairy foods.
Never mind that eating meat has been a staple of human existence for oh, three or four hundred thousand years. Forget the fact that the “epidemics” of heart disease and cancer veggie believers always reference as indictments of an omnivorous diet are modern phenomena, emerging only in the last couple generations. And ignore the reality that even the most strident opponents of the consumption of animal products can only point to associations of dietary choices with adverse medical outcomes.
Coincidence, not causation.
For the partisans who believe that humans are ordained to exist on plants only, there are no negative impacts on human health and longevity that cannot be blamed on eating beef, pork or chicken.
Now, there’s yet another (alleged) outcome haters can use to shock consumers: Meat-eating causes dementia.
That’s right. Researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York published a study in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences stating that “age-related dementia may be causally linked to high levels of foods [containing] advanced glycation end products.”
What are advanced glycation end products (AGEs), you ask? AGEs are formed when proteins or fats react with sugar, which, of course, can routinely occur during cooking, whether browning meat in an oven, or grilling it over an open flame.
“Modern diets are largely heat-processed and as a result contain high levels of advanced glycation end products,” the study’s authors stated. “Dietary AGE products are known to contribute to increased oxidant stress and inflammation, which are linked to the recent epidemics of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.”
AGEs have also been linked to an accumulation of amyloid plaques in the brain — similar to the lesions associated with bovine spongiform encephalopathy — that can impair cognitive functioning, as happens in dementia.
As someone who spent a decade struggling to deal with the deterioration caused by the progressive dementia that affected my mom once she hit her 80s, I can testify that the disease — whether associated with Alzheimer’s or as the result of organic neurological damage — can be devastating. And it’s a trauma that has been markedly increasing in prevalence over the last few decades.
Why? Not because we’re suddenly eating more meat or grilling more hamburgers or ordering more blackened redfish at our local Cajun bistros. It’s because — thanks to better nutrition, public health initiatives and the advances of modern medicine — we’re living a lot longer than ever before.
The demographics of virtually any westernized country are sobering. For example: According to the Health and Human Services’ Administration on Aging, the number of Americans aged 65 and older will increase from 40.22 million today to 88 million by 2050 — more than double the number.
Or how about this? The number of Americans aged 85 and older is projected to increase from about 5.71 million alive today to some 19.04 million by 2050 — nearly quadruple the current total.
Thus it’s safe to say that dementia will continue to be a serious national health issue, because only about 4 percent of all cases occur in anyone younger than 60.
But back to the study and why its conclusions are flawed. Here’s problem No. 1: rodents.
The researchers fed mice a high-AGEs diet and then observed a build-up of proteins in their brains that impaired cognitive functioning — if running through a maze to get a piece of cheese can be considered cognition. The problem is that we’re talking mice, those little, fuzzy white lab animals that are fed high doses of whatever substance is under study — until they develop symptoms significant enough to measure.
Such tactics hardly parallel human lifestyles, where any study of dietary nutrients is compounded by literally dozens of extraneous factors, from genetics to stress levels to the presence (or absence) of environmental contaminants. Even the various neurological and dietary authorities who commented on the Mount Sinai study told BBC News that the results, although “compelling,” did not provide “definitive answers.”
Dr. Simon Ridley, an Alzheimer’s researcher in Great Britain, told BBC News that, “This subject has so far not been well-studied in people, and we don’t yet know whether the amount of AGEs in our diet might affect our risk of dementia.”
And that’s problem the second problem. There’s nothing conclusive about this study as it affects people. If it were true that eating cooked meat leads to dementia, then why is the incidence of this syndrome increasing dramatically, even as per-capita consumption levels of red meat have declined across all of Western Europe and North America? Shouldn’t the rate of dementia be falling in proportion to the decrease in AGEs we’re supposedly ingesting along with our cooked meat?
Right now, more than five million seniors are thought to be suffering from various stages of dementia, a total that is expected to increase to as many as 14 million by 2050.
But there is a way to prevent dementia from increasing exponentially, and it’s got nothing to do with diet.
It’s simplicity itself: Don’t get old.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.