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Dementia risk: Ultra-processed foods may accelerate cognitive decline

Ultra-processed food consumption has been linked Trusted Sourceto a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, and obesity, among various other negative health outcomes.

One study using machine learning has estimated that over 73% of the food supply in the United States is ultra-processed. The findings of this study have yet to be evaluated by experts through peer review but are in line with other evidence that shows ultra-processed food consumption is very common in the United States.

In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)Trusted Source National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that calories obtained from ultra-processed foods increased from 53.5% to 57% from 2001–2018Trusted Source. The data show that whole-food consumption also decreased during the survey period.

As such, a growing body of research shows that eating too much ultra-processed food is dangerous for human health. Now, a new study shows more evidence that ultra-processed foods have a negative effect on cognitive health.

Lead study author Natalia Gomes Gonçalves, Ph.D., of the University of Sao Paulo Medical School in Sao Paulo, Brazil, told Medical News Today:

“Our results together with these other two studies provide evidence that the consumption of ultra-processed food is related to poorer cognitive performance, cognitive decline, and dementia in different samples”

Are all processed foods bad for you?

Not all processed foods are created equal, as many foods are processed to preserve their flavor, texture, and freshness.

But ultra-processed foods are typically ready to eat or drink but contain little to no nutritional value.

The NOVA food classification system categorizes foods based on the amount of processing used to preserve, extract, modify, or create them. The system describes four groups:

  • Minimally processed foods: Unprocessed or minimally processed foods such as seeds, fruits, eggs, and milk.
  • Processed culinary ingredients: These include salt, sugar, honey, and oils — foods in this group are processed by being pressed, milled, or ground.
  • Processed foods: From bread to cheese to canned foods, processed foods are made simply by adding sugar, oil, or salt to food. Processes include cooking and fermentation.
  • Ultra-processed food and drink products: These are industrial formulations with ingredients such as stabilizers and preservatives, including foods like chocolate, candies, ice cream, cookies, pastries, cakes, pizza, and fast food.

Ultra-processed food and cognitive health

Cognitive decline is often the first noticeable sign of dementiaTrusted Source, the general term which describes the impaired ability to remember, think or make decisions that can impact everyday life and activities.

Cognitive decline affectsTrusted Source 1 in 9 adults in the U.S.

Ultra-processed food consumption has been previously linkedTrusted Source to a reduction in verbal fluency in older adults and has been associatedTrusted Source with worsening cognition in older individuals with type 2 diabetes.

The current study provides more evidence linking ultra-processed food consumption to an increased risk of cognitive decline.

The multicenter prospective study included three different time periods between 2008 and 2017. Overall, 10,755 participants aged between 35 and 74 years were included — 5880 of the participants were women and 53.1% were white.

At the start of the study, the participants completed a food frequency questionnaire. During set time points throughout the study, they completed cognitive tests that analyzed word recall, recognition, and fluency.

Follow-up data an average of 8 years later, showed people with the highest intake of ultra-processed foods had a 28% faster rate of cognitive decline and a 25% faster rate of decline in executive function compared to people who had the lowest ultra-processed food intake.

Dr. Gonçalves explained the findings to MNT:

“At this time we cannot say if the consumption of ultra-processed foods is associated with accelerated decline in people who already have cognitive decline. These findings support the role of healthy dietary choices in delaying decline in cognitively healthy people.”

Effects of a healthy diet on cognition
Large population-based studiesTrusted Source have shown that a healthy, balanced diet is associated with larger brain volume.

ResearchTrusted Source has also shown that the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) diet — a combination of the Mediterranean and DASH diets — has been successful in slowing cognitive decline.

Dr. Gonçalves agreed that proper diet and nutrition can help protect cognitive health.

“The MIND diet has been linked to better cognitive performance and decreased risk of cognitive decline […] healthy foods included in the MIND diet are whole grains, green leafy and other vegetables, nuts, beans, berries, poultry, fish, and olive oil.”

She added that the most exciting part of her research is to show people that they can make choices about what they eat to maintain healthy cognition.

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