Could eating spicy food help you live longer?

There's good news for people who like to turn up the heat at mealtime: spicy foods may be linked to a longer life.

A new study by an international team of researchers led by the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences found that regular consumption of spicy food is associated with a lower risk of death. The results were published Tuesday in The BMJ medical journal.

The authors emphasize that this is an observational study so no definitive cause and effect relationship can be drawn, but they call for more research that could potentially "lead to updated dietary recommendations and development of functional foods."

Though more data is needed to confirm the findings, previous research has suggested that spices and their bioactive ingredient, capsaicin, have anti-obesity, antioxidant, anti-inflammation and anti-cancer properties.

"There's accumulating evidence from mostly experimental research that shows the benefit of spices or their active components on human health," lead study author Lu Qi, of Harvard's T. H. Chan School of Public Health and Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, told CBS News. "However, supportive data from population-based studies are sparse. For the first time, we reported that intake of spicy food might benefit health and lower risk of death in a large population. This is significant because consumption of spicy foods is common in many populations."

Qi and his team studied 487,375 participants aged 30 to 79 enrolled in the China Kadoorie Biobank from 2004 to 2008. Each person filled out a questionnaire that asked about overall health, physical measurements, and eating habits pertaining to spicy food, red meat, vegetable and alcohol intake.

The researchers followed up about seven years later, during which time 20,224 of the participants died. For the rest, they took into account factors such as age, marital status, education level and physical activity and excluded those with a history of cancer, heart disease and stroke.

An analysis of the data showed that people who ate spicy foods at least once or twice a week had a 10 percent reduced risk of death compared to those who consumed spicy foods less than once a week. And those who ate spicy foods almost every day had a 14 percent lower risk of death.

The association was seen in both men and women at about the same rate, and the effect was stronger in those who did not drink alcohol.

The most commonly used spices among those in the study who ate spicy foods weekly were fresh and dried chili peppers. Further investigation showed that those who consumed fresh chili had a lower risk of death from cancer, ischaemic heart disease and diabetes. The authors explained that this could be because fresh chili is richer in capsaicin, vitamin C, and other nutrients.

So does this mean people should pile on the spices at dinner to improve their health? Not necessarily, and you may want to hold the hot sauce, especially if you have gastrointestinal issues. "For those who are affected by digestive disorders such as a stomach ulcer, I would be cautious about eating spicy foods," Qi said.

In an accompanying editorial, Nita Forouhi from the University of Cambridge called for more studies to test whether spicy foods have a direct impact on health.

"Future research is needed to establish whether spicy food consumption has the potential to improve health and reduce mortality directly or if it is merely a marker of other dietary and lifestyle factors," she wrote. "The added contribution of spicy food intake to the benefits of a balanced healthy diet and healthy lifestyles also remains to be investigated."

However, she said that the current findings should stimulate "dialogue, debate, and further interest in research."

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    Ashley Welch covers health and wellness for CBSNews.com