Research Shows This Gross (but Common) Behavior May Increase Alzheimer’s Risk

Data suggest 91% of us discreetly engage in this unalluring habit. A scientist explains the surprising dangers that a recent dementia study uncovered, while an ear, nose, and throat doctor offers three wise avenues as alternatives.

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Chances are, most of us as kids experienced an adult’s reprimand not to pick our nose…but in 1995, one psychiatry study proposed that more than 91% of adults dig for green gold. The world has changed since that study was conducted…but has human behavior? Here’s reason it should: Recent research has suggested nose-picking may be worse than just a social faux pas.

A 2022 Australian public health study in mice published in the peer-reviewed journal, Scientific Reports, found that this not-so-hygienic habit may increase your chances of developing age-related memory problems, including Alzheimer’s disease.

We spoke with the study’s lead researcher, and here’s why he and his team think this may happen: Picking your nose can damage its internal tissues, opening pathways for bacteria to access your brain. There, these bacteria can cause changes to your brain and nervous system that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

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Here’s how the researchers reached this conclusion: Studies in mice showed that bacteria called Chlamydia pneumonia can travel up the olfactory nerve that links the nasal cavity and the brain. The bacteria use this nerve like a fireman’s pole and invade the central nervous system. Brain cells respond by depositing amyloid beta plaques, markers of Alzheimer’s disease, in the brain.

“There is a strong link between some microorganisms and Alzheimer’s disease because the microbes have been detected within the plaques of Alzheimer’s disease patient brains,” study author James St. John, PhD, tells The Healthy @Reader’s Digest. Dr. St. John is head of the Clem Jones Centre for Neurobiology and Stem Cell Research within the Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery and the Menzies Health Institute Queensland at Griffith University in Australia.

Now, Dr. St. John and his colleagues are setting up a smell clinic to find out which bacteria are present in the noses of people with late-onset Alzheimer’s. They plan to use this information to work on treatments to reduce the effect of these bacteria and reverse symptoms.

So while nose-picking might seem like an impolite but rather innocent habit, Dr. St. John says there are ways to protect your health as researchers try to clarify the link between nose picking, bacteria, and Alzheimer’s disease.

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Don’t pick your nose or pluck the hairs from your nose

This can damage the lining of your nose and help bacteria hatch their escape plan. “The bacteria could then penetrate in larger amounts into the olfactory nerve and brain,” he says. “Our work shows that damaging the nasal lining can make it worse, which could happen if you pick your nose too vigorously.”

Linda Dahl, MD, an ear nose, and throat specialist affiliated with Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, says that for people who pick because their nose is dry, try using a saline spray or blowing your nose more often. “Use a little bit of Neosporin or another antibacterial ointment at the rim of the nose twice a day,” Dr. Dahl says, “where it can add moisture and kill bacteria.”

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Other smart ways to prevent Alzheimer’s disease

According to research presented at the American Academy of Neurology 2023 meeting in Boston, seven specific habits and lifestyle factors may play a role in lowering dementia risk. The American Heart Association’s “Life’s Simple 7” program includes being active, eating better, maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking, maintaining healthy blood pressure levels, controlling cholesterol, and having normal blood sugar.

You get one point for each healthy habit for a maximum of seven points. The higher your score is in middle age, the experts say the lower your risk of developing dementia down the road. For every increase of one point in the score, the risk of dementia decreases by 6%!

Keeping your hands away from your nose may be one way to keep your brain healthy. Another? Paying attention to what you put in your mouth: Experts say that what’s good for the heart is good for the brain, and a heart-healthy diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, lean protein, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains may reduce Alzheimer’s risk by 53%.

Need another reason to keep your digits out of your nose? Germs that enter the nose can also increase your risk of miserable respiratory infections like flu, COVID-19 or even pneumonia.

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Sources
Jefferson JW,  Thompson TD. “Rhinotillexomania: psychiatric disorder or habit.” Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. 1995 Feb;56(2):56-9.   Chacko, A., Delbaz, A., Walkden, H. et al. “Chlamydia pneumoniae can infect the central nervous system via the olfactory and trigeminal nerves and contributes to Alzheimer’s disease risk.” Sci Rep 12, 2759 (2022). James St John, PhD, head Clem Jones Centre for Neurobiology and Stem Cell Research, the Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery, Menzies Health Institute Queensland, Griffith University, Australia Linda Dahl, MD, ear nose and throat specialist, Lenox Hill Hospital,  New York City “Life’s Simple 7 and the Risk of Dementia among Women.” Presented at the 2023 American Academy of Neurology  meeting.

Denise Mann, MS
Denise Mann is a freelance health writer whose articles regularly appear in WebMD, HealthDay, and other consumer health portals. She has received numerous awards, including the Arthritis Foundation's Northeast Region Prize for Online Journalism; the Excellence in Women's Health Research Journalism Award; the Journalistic Achievement Award from the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery; National Newsmaker of the Year by the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America; the Gold Award for Best Service Journalism from the Magazine Association of the Southeast; a Bronze Award from The American Society of Healthcare Publication Editors (for a cover story she wrote in Plastic Surgery Practice magazine); and an honorable mention in the International Osteoporosis Foundation Journalism Awards. She was part of the writing team awarded a 2008 Sigma Delta Chi award for her part in a WebMD series on autism. Her first foray into health reporting was with the Medical Tribune News Service, where her articles appeared regularly in such newspapers as the Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times, Dallas Morning News, and Los Angeles Daily News. Mann received a graduate degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and her undergraduate degree from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. She lives in New York with her husband David; sons Teddy and Evan; and their miniature schnauzer, Perri Winkle Blu.