Eating highly processed foods such as instant noodles, sugary drinks, or frozen meals may be associated with a faster rate of cognitive decline.
That’s according to new research presented Monday at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in San Diego. The study examined the diet and cognition of more than 10,000 middle-aged and older adults in Brazil.
The findings, which have not yet been peer-reviewed, showed that participants who got 20% or more of their daily calories from ultra-processed foods — items with few whole ingredients that often contain flavorings, dyes or other additives — saw a faster decline in cognitive function. performance over six to ten years than those with little processed food in their diet.
The category of food in question includes items such as white bread, crackers, cookies, fried snacks, cream cheese, ice cream, candy, soda, hot dogs and other processed meats. According to a 2016 study, these ultra-processed foods make up about 58% of all calories consumed in the US. The authors of the new study estimate that in Brazil, that share is closer to 25% or 30%.
“Irrespective of the amount of calories, regardless of the amount of healthy foods you’re trying to eat, ultra-processed foods aren’t good for your cognition,” said Claudia Suemoto, an author of the study and assistant professor of geriatrics at the University of Sao Paulo. medical school.
In particular, Suemoto and her team found that the adults in the study who consumed the most processed foods had a 25% faster decline in their ability to plan and execute an action — known as “executive function.”
Similarly, a study published last week found that for every 10% increase in daily intake of ultra-processed foods, people in the UK had a 25% higher risk of developing dementia.
“The data is incredibly strong that foods that are not part of the Mediterranean diet — foods high in fat and sugar, and now we can add foods that are highly processed to this list — definitely, positively contribute to a person’s risk of cognitive decline.” and eventually dementia,” said Andrew Budson, a neurology professor at Boston University who was not involved in the study.
The many health risks associated with processed foods
Suemoto emphasized that her study did not attempt to investigate the underlying reasons for cognitive decline, and it does not conclude that consumption of ultra-processed foods is a direct cause. Rather, it found a connection between the two.
“An increase in the availability and consumption of fast, processed and ultra-processed foods is due to a number of socioeconomic factors, including low access to healthy foods, less time to prepare food from scratch and the inability to afford whole food options,” Percy Griffin, director of scientific engagement for the Alzheimer’s Association, in a statement.
Lower socioeconomic status often means less access to health care, less time for exercise, and more exposure to environmental pollution, all of which also affect physical and cognitive health.
But plenty of other research has uncovered the health effects of consuming processed foods, including an increased risk of cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
“It’s troubling but not surprising to see new data suggesting that these foods can significantly accelerate cognitive decline,” Griffin said.
Budson, who co-authored the book “Seven Steps to Managing Your Memory,” said the same mechanism that increases the risk of disease probably also increases the likelihood of dementia.
“When foods are highly processed, the nutrients are immediately delivered into our bloodstream … instead of being broken down slowly and released slowly as our stomach and intestines digest them,” he said.
For example, Budson added that a large amount of fat flowing through the bloodstream can clog arteries, which in turn can increase the risk of strokes that impair a person’s brain function.
“There are many studies showing that the biggest contributor to cognitive decline from nutritional problems is actually cognitive decline associated with cerebrovascular disease — that is, related to mini-strokes or outright major strokes,” he said.
When shopping, check the ingredients list
Processed foods require little preparation and are easy to consume in excess because they don’t make you as full as whole foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, potatoes, eggs, seafood or meat.
“I know sometimes it’s easier to open a package and throw it in the microwave, but in the long run, it’s going to cost you years of your life,” Suemoto said.
If you’re buying packaged foods, Suemoto recommends checking the ingredients; a longer list usually indicates the presence of more additives, she said.
That can even be true for items that sound healthy.
“A highly processed, frozen veggie burger isn’t nearly as good for you as eating the fresh vegetables needed to make that burger,” Budson said.
He added that it is never too late to reap the benefits of switching to a healthier diet. But Suemoto said the sooner people start building meals around whole foods, the better.
“More and more, it’s becoming very clear to me that if you want to age well, you have to start investing very early — at 35, 40, 45, 50,” she said. “Don’t wait until age 60 and older to think about dementia, to think about a healthy heart and brain.”