Consuming ultra-processed foods could increase dementia risk: study

People could be at a higher risk for dementia if more than 20% of their daily caloric intake is ultra-processed foods, a new study found.

The part of the brain involved in processing information and making decisions, or executive functioning, is particularly impacted by the risk of cognitive decline, according to the study published Monday in JAMA Neurology.

In the study, people who consumed the most ultra-processed foods recorded a 28% faster rate of global cognitive decline and a 25% faster rate of executive function decline compared to those who ate the least amount of overly processed foods.

Ultra-processed foods were defined in the study as "industrial formulations of 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."

Examples of ultra-processed foods include hot dogs, hamburgers, sausages, french fries, sodas, cookies, cakes, candy, doughnuts and ice cream.

The study followed more than 10,000 Brazilians for up to 10 years, with the average age of participants being 51.

Cognitive testing included immediate and delayed word recall, word recognition, and verbal fluency. This testing was performed at the beginning and end of the study, with participants answered questions regarding their diet.

The study was presented Monday at the 2022 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in San Diego, California.

"In Brazil, ultra-processed foods make up 25% to 30% of total calorie intake. We have McDonald’s, Burger King, and we eat a lot of chocolate and white bread. It’s not very different, unfortunately, from many other Western countries," said co-author Dr. Claudia Suemoto, an assistant professor in the division of geriatrics at the University of São Paulo Medical School.

"Fifty-eight percent of the calories consumed by United States citizens, 56.8% of the calories consumed by British citizens, and 48% of the calories consumed by Canadians come from ultra-processed foods," she continued.

And co-author Natalia Gonçalves, a researcherin the department of pathology at the University of São Paulo Medical School, said people who "consumed more than 20% of daily calories from processed foods had a 28% faster decline in global cognition and a 25% faster decline in executive functioning compared to people who ate less than 20%."

It is already known that ultra-processed foods increase the risk of obesity, heart and circulation problems, diabetes, cancer, and a shorter life span.

To avoid these increased health risks, experts encourage people whose diets consist of ultra-processed foods to also consume high-quality foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

According to Suemoto, one way to ensure a high-quality diet is to prepare meals from scratch.

"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," Suemoto said.

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

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