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Ultra-processed Foods May Contribute to Dementia Risk

If you regularly enjoy ultra-processed foods like hot dogs, cakes, and white bread, a new study warns that you may be increasing your risk for dementia.

Dementia affects nearly 6.5 million Americans, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) predicts that by 2060, that number could rise as high as 14 million of us.

Our primary care doctors in Delray Beach understand the attraction of these foods: They’re deliberately designed to appeal to our taste buds, in addition to being super-convenient. But ultra-processed foods—meaning those that are as far away from their natural state as possible—have been linked to various harmful outcomes.

Previous Studies

For example, one study of more than 22,000 adults published this year in the journal BMJ found that subjects who consumed more ultra-processed foods had a 19 percent higher likelihood of early death and a 32 percent higher risk of dying from heart disease than those who ate fewer ultra-processed foods.

Another 2019 study published in BMJ followed more than 100,000 adults in France for five years. They found that those who ate the most processed foods were 23 percent more likely to experience a heart condition or stroke than those who consumed the lowest amounts.

A third study, also published in BMJ, tracked 20,000 Spanish adults over 20 years. Those who ate the most processed foods were 62 percent more likely to die during the study period than those who ate the lowest.

Other studies have linked processed and ultra-processed foods to a higher risk for colon cancer, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.

Latest Findings

While an occasional helping of fries or a few potato chips probably won’t do much damage, this new research found that those who regularly consumed 20 percent or more of their calories from these foods increased their risk of this debilitating disease.

That may sound like a lot, but in a 2,000-calorie diet, 20 percent is only 400 calories: the amount found in just 30 french fries or 20 potato chips.

The study, published this month in the journal JAMA Neurology and presented at the 2022 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, followed more than 10,000 Brazilian men and women for 10 years.

Cognitive testing—including word recall and recognition and verbal fluency—was performed at the beginning and end of the study.

Participants who consumed the most ultra-processed foods had a 25 percent faster rate of decline in executive function and a 28 percent faster rate of overall cognitive impairment compared with those who ate the least amount of highly processed food.

The study defined ultra-processed foods ad “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 included frozen meals, processed meat such as bacon and sausage, sugar-sweetened beverages, refined grains, and breakfast cereals.

Western Diet Woes

The sample size is substantial, and the follow-up extensive,” Dr. David Katz, a specialist in preventive and lifestyle medicine and nutrition, who was not involved in the study, told CNN. He is president and founder of the nonprofit True Health Initiative, a global coalition of experts dedicated to evidence-based lifestyle medicine.

“Ultra-processed foods in general are bad for every part of us,” he added.

Brazilians, who have access to many fast food outlets such as Mcdonald’s and Burger King, consume 25-30 percent of their total calorie intake from ultra-processed foods.

But they aren’t alone, according to study 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 percent of the calories consumed by British citizens, and 48 percent of the calories consumed by Canadians from ultra-processed foods,” she told CNN when the study abstract was released in August.

There is Hope

If you’re absolutely addicted to Oreo cookies or your evening bowl of ice cream, there’s no need to panic, however.

That’s because the study findings also showed that for those who balanced out their consumption of ultra-processed foods with such healthy fare as fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts and seafood, and whole grains, the association between ultra-processed foods and cognitive decline vanished.

“Ultra-processed foods drag diet quality down, and thus their concentration in the diet is an indicator of poor diet quality in most cases,” Katz said.

“Atypical as it seems, apparently some of the participants managed it. And when diet quality was high, the observed association between ultra-processed foods and brain function abated,” he added.

Small Steps Help

Besides consuming a high-quality diet, the CDC reports that there is growing scientific evidence that healthy behaviors can reduce the risk of memory loss.

Their eight-step program involves the following recommendations:

  • Quit smoking.
  • Maintain a healthy blood pressure level.
  • Manage cholesterol levels with exercise and, if needed, cholesterol medications.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Stay engaged in relationships and your community.
  • Manage blood sugar.
  • If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation (one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men).

In addition, a recent study found that just 10 minutes or more of vigorous exercise more than one day a week can reduce the risk of proceeding from mild cognitive impairment (MCI) to dementia by 18 percent.

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