Eating Ultra Processed Foods Promotes Dementia

A new study just published in the May 22, 2024, online issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology added to the accumulated body of knowledge which shows that people who eat more ‘ultra-processed’ foods have a higher risk of developing memory problems and having a stroke compared to people who eat little processed foods. Associations Between Ultra-Processed Food Consumption and Adverse Brain Health OutcomesNeurology, 2024; 102 (11) DOI: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000209432

 Although consumption of ultra processed food has been linked to a higher risk of obesity, metabolic syndrome, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, the association of consumption of ultra processed foods with cognitive decline has not been as well studied. 

Dementia is the most important cause of disability in high-income countries The limited efficacy of available treatments for dementia highlights the need to identify interventions that may prevent or delay the onset of dementia to decrease the societal burden endured by this disorder. Lifestyle modifications, such as physical activity, healthy dietary habits, and smoking cessation, have been related to dementia prevention. Healthy eating habits, which include a high intake of whole grains, vegetables, fruit, nuts, and fish have been linked to increased brain volume and decreased risk of cognitive decline over time. Neuroimaging studies have found that high consumption of processed foods was related to a reduction in the left hippocampus and gray matter volume. These scientific findings support the public health recommendations which state that ultra processed food consumption should be limited because they may contribute to a decline in cognitive function.

Ultra-processed foods are those that are high in added sugar, fat and salt, and low in protein and fiber. They include soft drinks, salty and sugary snacks, ice cream, artificially flavored cereals, canned baked beans, ketchup and mayonnaise. Unprocessed or minimally processed foods include vegetables and fruits and natural cuts of meats such as beef, pork and chicken.

Citing the need for more research W. Taylor Kimberly, MD, PhD, of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston says, “While a healthy diet is important in maintaining brain health among older adults, the most important dietary choices for your brain remain unclear. We found that increased consumption of ultra-processed foods was associated with a higher risk of both stroke and cognitive impairment.”

For the study, researchers looked at more than 30,000 people aged 45 or older. These subjects were followed for an average of eleven years. Study participants filled out questionnaires about what they ate and drank. Researchers determined how much ultra-processed food people were being eaten, and that percentage placed the subjects into four groups- those who ate the greatest percentage of processed foods in their diet, to the lowest percentage of processed foods.

Dividing up the total number of study subjects, they obtained data on over fourteen thousand participants for cognitive decline and twenty thousand for stroke. At the beginning of the study all of the subjects were screened for cognitive decline and found to be normal cognitively with no history of stroke.

By the end of the eleven-year study, 768 people were diagnosed with cognitive impairment and over 1,100 people had suffered from a stroke. After adjusting for the data groups for sex, age, high blood pressure and other factors that could affect dementia risk, they found that a 10% increase in the amount of ultra-processed foods eaten was associated with a 16% higher risk of cognitive impairment. They also calculated that eating more unprocessed or minimally processed foods was associated with a 12% lower risk of cognitive decline. After further calculation of the data they determined that an even greater intake of ultra-processed foods was linked to an even greater risk of developing dementia, or having a stroke-between 8 and 9% percent greater for cognitive decline and stroke, respectively.

Dr Kimberly says, “Our findings show that the degree of food processing plays an important role in overall brain health.  “More research is needed to confirm these results and to better understand which food or processing components contribute most to these effects.”

The study was funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the National Institute on Aging, National Institutes of Health and Department of Health and Human Services.

Another recent study 

 In a study of 10,775 individuals, higher consumption of ultra processed foods was associated with a higher rate of mental decline after a  follow-up of 8 years. These findings suggest that limiting the intake of ultra processed food could be a preventive measure used to reduce the risk of cognitive decline in middle-aged and older people. They found that consumption of greater than 20% of total daily calories from ultra processed foods was associated with a faster decline in cognitive performance compared with those who ate less than 20% of their daily calories from those foods. They also found that these percentages also applied to cognitive decline seen in some participants who developed an earlier onset of dementia- those under 60 years of age. This highlights the necessity of getting this information out to the general public to make them aware of the need to try and use the preventive dietary interventions necessary to avoid the terrible consequence of early onset dementia.

And of course, it needs to be emphasized to everyone that along with a decline in cognitive abilities, the intake of ultra processed foods increases the risk of being overweight, obese,38,39 having metabolic syndrome and diabetes,40 cancer,41 cardiovascular diseases,42 and overall all-cause mortality.43,44

Finally, it is important to understand that the mechanism for the decline in cognition seen in these studies may be related to systemic inflammation caused by the consumption of ultra processed foods. All of the ways known to counteract an inflammatory process in the body should be followed because low-grade inflammation alters the homeostasis of the human body organism and promotes the onset of many chronic diseases.

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Medically reviewed by Dr. Henry C. Sobo, M.D

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