Eating "Ultra-Processed Foods" Spikes Your Dementia Risk, New Study Says—Here's What to Avoid


Besides changes to your body and physical health, aging also means learning to cope with potential mental obstacles such as cognitive decline. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), dementia currently affects more than 55 million people worldwide, with 10 million new cases reported yearly. While there's still no guaranteed way to prevent or cure the condition, researchers are getting a better understanding of the kinds of lifestyle changes and healthy choices that can help lower the likelihood of someone developing it. And now, a new study has found that eating certain "ultra-processed foods" can increase your dementia risk. Read on to see what science says you should avoid for your brain's sake.

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Evidence shows a connection between brain health and our diets.

Like other health concerns, dementia has risk factors that remain out of our control, such as age or family history. But research has shown there are plenty of changes you can make that could lower your chances of developing the condition. According to Mayo Clinic, staying on top of your heart health by keeping an eye on your blood pressure and cholesterol levels, incorporating exercise, and avoiding drinking too much alcohol can all have an effect.

And not surprisingly, there's plenty of evidence to show that sticking to healthy eating habits can help lower your dementia risk—including the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) diet. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Network Open in July 2022, it was found that "a high level of adherence to the Mediterranean diet was associated with better global cognition and decreased 7-year learning and memory decline" among the study's participants.

The eating plan involves incorporating certain types of food to establish healthy cornerstones. "The MIND diet focuses on consuming vegetables—specifically green leafy vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans, berries, poultry, fish, olive oil, and a moderate amount of wine. These foods provide excellent sources of antioxidants, which help decrease inflammation in the body and lower your risk of dementia," Stacy Leung, RDN, a registered dietitian and nutritionist with Lettuce Grow, previously told Best Life.

But while a healthy diet can make it easier to decrease your chances of cognitive decline, other research now shows that there are certain foods you should steer clear of, too.

New research finds that ultra-processed foods can increase your risk of dementia.

Avoiding packaged sweet treats and savory snacks has long been a way for people to help stay on top of their heart health. But new evidence shows that consuming too many ultra-processed foods can also affect your brain health and increase your risk of dementia.

In a study published in JAMA Neurology on Dec. 5, researchers analyzed data from a group of 10,775 participants between the ages of 35 and 74. During a median follow-up period of eight years, the team used memory and vocabulary tests to gauge each person's cognition and "executive function" while also issuing food questionnaires to measure their diets and intake of ultra-processed foods and beverages. Researchers split food items into three categories, including one group representing unprocessed fruits, vegetables, meat, and fish and another of processed foods with preservatives added, such as canned fruits, fish, and meats. The third ultra-processed group was foods containing sweeteners, colorings, and other ingredients.

The team then used the dietary data to split each participant into four groups based on their levels of processed food intake. Results showed that participants in the top three groups—or those who ate more than 20 percent of their daily calorie intake from ultra-processed foods—saw a 25 percent faster decline in cognitive function throughout the study, Healthline reports. They also showed a 28 percent more rapid rate of cognitive decline compared to participants in the group with the least consumption.

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These are the types of foods you might want to avoid for your brain health.
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While it may seem easy to simply cut out the kinds of meals and snacks that could increase your risk of dementia, many of the items are the kinds of things we pick up when we're in a rush or indulging a craving. The study's authors defined ultra-processed food as "sweet and savory snacks, confectionery, breakfast cereals, ice cream, sugar-sweetened beverages, processed meats, and ready-to-eat frozen meals," calling them "formulations of processed food substances (oils, fats, sugars, starch, and protein isolates) that contain little or no whole foods and typically include flavorings, colorings, emulsifiers, and other cosmetic additives."

According to the Harvard Medical School, processing simply describes changing food from its natural state. For example, this can involve turning wheat into flour or an apple into apple juice. But the next step that turns it into ultra-processed includes added ingredients such as salt, fat, sugar, and preservatives—such as when wheat becomes cookies or apples are baked in a pie.

The study's author says cooking for yourself and avoiding ultra-processed foods can help.

In response to the study, some experts said it was clear there was a relationship between diet and brain health.

"While this is a study of association, not designed to prove cause and effect, there are a number of elements to fortify the proposition that some acceleration in cognitive decay may be attributed to ultra-processed foods," David Katz, MD, a specialist in preventive and lifestyle medicine and nutrition, who wasn't involved in the study, told CNN. "The sample size is substantial, and the follow-up extensive. While short of proof, this is robust enough that we should conclude ultra-processed foods are probably bad for our brains."

The researchers say that making one significant lifestyle change can make it easier to avoid ultra-processed foods for the sake of controlling dementia risk. "People need to know they should cook more and prepare their own food from scratch. I know. We say we don't have time, but it really doesn't take that much time," Claudia Suemoto, MD, PhD, one of the study's coauthors and an assistant professor in the division of geriatrics at the University of São Paulo Medical School, told CNN.

"And it's worth it because you're going to protect your heart and guard your brain from dementia or Alzheimer's disease," she added. "That's the take-home message: Stop buying things that are super-processed."