As you get older, your risk of developing dementia naturally increases. Although risk factors for dementia such as age and family history cannot be changed, your exercise, alcohol intake, and diet can. Watching what you drink and eat can play an important role in your brain functions. And, may help decrease your dementia risk.
Deciphering which foods are good or bad for your brain health might sound challenging. However, a new study American Academy of Neurology study is making it easier to pinpoint exactly what those foods are. The study, published July 27, 2022, found that eating ultra-processed foods is associated with increasing your risk of dementia.
The study involved 72,083 participants 55 years old and up. Information was taken from the UK Biobank—a large database that contains health information of half a million people living in the United Kingdom. Participants did not have dementia at the start of the study. The study followed the participants for about 10 years. They also had to fill out at least two questionnaires about what they ate and drank the previous day. By the end of the study, 518 people had been diagnosed with dementia.
Researchers in the study determined how much ultra-processed food the participants ate based on food intake questionnaires. They calculated this as a percentage of the total amount of food consumed per day. Then, participants were divided into four equal groups, ranging from the lowest percentage consumption of ultra-processed foods to the highest.
The researchers took into consideration factors that could affect the risk of dementia. These included age, gender, family history of dementia and heart disease, and others. Once determined, the study concluded that on average, for every 10% increase in daily intake of ultra-processed foods, people had a 25% higher risk of dementia. Some of the significantly high ultra-processed food intake worth mentioning included beverages, sugary products, and ultra-processed dairy.
Furthermore, the study shows an association between ultra-processed foods and the risk of dementia. Lower risk of dementia was associated with replacing ultra-processed foods in a person’s diet with unprocessed or minimally processed foods.
“Decreasing the intake of ultra-processed foods and replacing them with whole foods has a variety of health benefits,” suggests Amy Shapiro, MS, RD, and member of our Medical Expert Board. “Including decreasing inflammation, the risk for chronic disease such as diabetes, heart disease, and now dementia.”
Shapiro further suggests that processed foods might taste great. However, they are often full of sugar, sodium, unhealthy fats, preservatives, and other chemicals. These ingredients do not promote optimal health and wellness.
“The research in this area is powerful as it fuels the conversation that food in its whole form can heal and promote health and wellness,” she says. “However, the types of food reviewed in this study did not include other ultra-processed foods that individuals deem healthy. Like veggie burgers, healthy chips, cereals, etc.”
However, we need more research, according to Shapiro. She also believes that detailed diet histories and food journals will help to understand more about how much these foods play a role.
“Providing this information is important,” says Shapiro. “But, educating on how to substitute these foods with healthier ones that are accessible to everyone is also an important message to share.”
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