diet and brain health

Strange and Unexpected Things That Supposedly Influence Dementia Risk

By | June 5th, 2024

From picking your nose to eating popcorn, scientific claims related to Alzheimer’s can run wild on the Internet. Here are some of the strangest Alzheimer's risk factors that have been studied — and how readers can sift through media coverage of this research to understand the real story.

Alzheimer’s research is being published everyday around the world. Engaging headlines can draw readers in, but some of the articles we read are based on preliminary results from new research that isn’t peer-reviewed, or studies that were done solely with animals, not humans. 

When readers are looking for credible research they can sometimes fall victim to misleading press releases or oversimplified reporting that doesn’t dig into — or that flat out misinterprets — the scientific data. (Want to learn more about media literacy when it comes to science reporting around Alzheimer’s and dementia? We’ve got you covered.)

Here are a few recent headlines on some of the strange things that supposedly influence your dementia risk — with our reporting team’s notes on how to interpret the science.

1. Picking your nose

Nine in 10 people admit to picking their nose, but could this seemingly harmless behavior be linked to dementia? By the age of 20, research shows that about 50 percent of people have traces of C. pneumoniae in their blood. C. pneumoniae is a bacteria found in the nasal cavity and is associated with deposits of beta-amyloid proteins in the brain that are biomarkers of Alzheimer’s. 

In a study using mice, researchers injected C. pneumoniae into the noses of the creatures. They found more bacteria in the part of the brain closest to the nose in the mice that were injected with C. pneumoniae compared to the control group. Researchers also found that the gene profiles related to Alzheimer’s disease were more abundant in mice 28 days after infection compared to seven days after infection. 

There are a lot of variables when it comes to Alzheimer’s risk, and evidence connecting nose picking and increased risk of Alzheimer’s is still inconclusive. 

“Picking your nose and plucking the hairs from your nose are not a good idea,” James St. John, PhD, head of the Clem Jones Centre for Neurobiology and Stem Cell Research at Griffith University said. “If you damage the lining of the nose, you can increase how many bacteria can go up into your brain.”

2. Eating popcorn

A 2023 study conducted by researchers at RUSH University in Chicago found that eating popcorn, or a few servings of whole grains each day, is associated with reduced risk of cognitive decline. 

The study included 3,326 participants, had an average age of 75 years-old and was composed of 60 percent African American participants. Researchers carefully followed participants for six years. Participants self-reported how much and how often they ate whole grains while completing annual cognitive and memory tests.

Following the study, researchers concluded that white participants experienced less benefit from eating whole grains. African American participants who had reported eating more servings of whole grains had lower levels of cognitive decline equivalent to being 8.5 years younger over the 10-year period of observation.

“African Americans had more whole grains in their diet than the white population in our study,” study author Xiaoran Liu, PhD, assistant professor of Internal Medicine at RUSH Medical College said. “This may be a contributing factor in why we saw more of a benefit in African Americans. With rapidly aging populations, this highlights the need for more studies to explore this association to tailor dietary recommendations and help find ways to delay dementia.”

There’s well-established evidence about the benefits of incorporating whole grains into your diet, but more research is needed to definitively say popcorn can reduce risk of cognitive decline.

3. Swimming in cold water

Researchers from Cambridge University found that cold water swimming could be linked to dementia prevention. A “cold-shock” protein found in the blood of regular winter swimmers was found to slow the onset of dementia and repair some of its damage in mice.

In the study, the Cambridge team cooled a group of ordinary mice and mice with Alzheimer’s disease to a point where their body temperatures were below 35 C. Upon rewarming, only the control group was able to regenerate their synapses, a junction where neurons connect. The mice with Alzheimer’s were not able to. 

A “cold-shock” protein, called RBM3, was found in higher levels in the control mice. In a separate experiment the team found that brain cell deaths in Alzheimer’s disease could be prevented by artificially boosting RBM3 levels in mice.

A key issue? Getting cold can be extremely dangerous. The risks associated with prolonged cold exposure outweigh the potential benefits, and researchers have not found a way to stimulate the production of this “cold-shock” protein in humans yet. More research is needed to determine the impact of this “cold-shock” protein on humans living with Alzheimer’s.

So, how do you separate exaggeration from reality?

Alzheimer’s research is constantly in the news, and the Being Patient editorial team sees overhyped and misrepresented study results frequently. It’s important to keep in mind that just because they’ve completed a study doesn’t mean the researchers have discovered an ambiguous truth. Alzheimer’s research grounded in factual evidence takes years to complete and often builds off of other existing work in the field.

One of the first steps to separate exaggeration from reality is to check the source of the news article you are reading. Findings from a peer-reviewed study are generally trustworthy because the article can only be published after a rigorous peer-review process. On the other hand, many news articles cover clinical trials that are in early stages and have research that has not been peer-reviewed. This can also include results from a press release from a drug company. No matter how exciting the research or headline might seem, articles of this sort should be taken with a grain of salt. Learn more about media literacy and dementia reporting here.

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