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Eating lots of highly processed foods is linked to faster cognitive decline, research shows

Consuming highly processed foods like instant noodles, sugary drinks, or frozen meals may be linked to faster cognitive decline.

That’s according to a new study presented Monday at the Alzheimer’s Association’s international conference in San Diego. The study looked at the diets and cognition of more than 10,000 middle-aged and older adults in Brazil.

The results, which have not yet been peer-reviewed, showed that participants who got 20% or more of their daily calories from ultra-processed foods — items low in whole ingredients that often contain flavorings , colorants or other additives – saw a faster decline. cognitive performance over six to 10 years than people with low processed foods in their diets.

The food category in question includes items like white bread, crackers, cookies, fried snacks, cream cheese, ice cream, candies, sodas, hot dogs and other processed meats. These ultra-processed foods make up about 58% of all calories consumed in the United States, according to a 2016 study. The authors of the new study estimated that in Brazil, that share is closer to 25% or 30%.

“Regardless of the amount of calories, regardless of the amount of healthy foods you try to eat, ultra-processed foods are not good for your cognition,” said Claudia Suemoto, study author and assistant professor of geriatrics at university. School of Medicine of the University of Sao Paulo.

Suemoto and his team found in particular that the adults in the study who ate the most processed foods experienced a 25% faster decline in their ability to plan and execute action, known as “executive function.” .

Similarly, a study published last week found that for every 10% increase in daily consumption 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 to this list highly processed foods – absolutely, positively contribute to the risk of cognitive decline and eventually dementia,” said Andrew Budson, a Boston University neurology professor who was not involved in the research.

The many health risks associated with processed foods

Suemoto stressed that her study did not attempt to examine the underlying reasons for cognitive decline, and she does not conclude that eating ultra-processed foods is a direct cause. On the contrary, he found a correlation between the two.

“An increase in the availability and consumption of fast, processed and ultra-processed foods is due to a number of socio-economic factors, including poor access to healthy foods, less time to prepare food from nothing and the inability to afford whole-food options,” Percy Griffin, director of science engagement for the Alzheimer’s Association, said in a statement.

Lower socioeconomic status can often mean less access to health care, less time to exercise, and more exposure to environmental pollution, which also influence physical and cognitive health.

But plenty of other research has pointed to the health consequences of eating 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, co-author of the book “Seven Steps to Managing Your Memory,” said the same mechanism that increases disease risk likely also increases dementia risk.

“When foods are highly processed, the nutrients are immediately delivered into our bloodstream…instead of being slowly broken down and slowly released as our stomach and intestines digest them,” he said.

For example, Budson added, a large amount of fat rushing into the bloodstream can clog arteries, which in turn can increase the risk of a stroke that impairs a person’s brain function.

“Many studies show that the largest contributor to cognitive decline from eating problems is actually cognitive decline related to cerebrovascular disease, i.e. related to mini-strokes or large strokes,” he said. -he declares.

When shopping, check the ingredient list

Processed foods require little preparation and are easy to overeat because they don’t tend to fill you up as much as whole foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, potatoes, eggs, fruit seafood or meat.

“I know sometimes it’s easier to open a package and put it in the microwave, but in the long run it will cost you years of life,” Suemoto said.

If you’re buying packaged foods, Suemoto recommended checking the ingredients; a longer list usually signals the presence of more additives, she said.

This can be true even for items that seem healthy.

“A highly processed frozen veggie burger isn’t as good for you as eating the fresh vegetables that would go into that burger,” Budson said.

He added that it is never too late to reap the benefits of switching to healthier diets. But Suemoto said the sooner people start preparing meals around whole foods, the better.

“More and more, it’s very clear to me that to age well, you have to start investing very early – at 35, 40, 45, 50,” she said. “Don’t wait until you’re 60+ to start thinking about dementia, to start thinking about having a healthy heart and brain.”


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