Dementia affects approximately 6.5 million Americans – and those numbers are expected to rise. The CDC estimates that by 2060, 14 million Americans could be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia.
Several studies have shown that diet, along with age, genetics and environment, play a major role in our risk of diagnosis later in life. Now, a new study shows that eating even small amounts of certain foods could significantly increase the risk of developing dementia. The study, published in JAMA Neurology and presented at the 2022 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, followed more than 10,000 people for ten years. The study included both men and women, with more than 50% of participants being women, white, and college graduates. The average age of the participants at the start of the study was 51 years old. At the end of the study, participants were assessed on changes in cognitive performance over time using several cognition-related tests. Researchers found that those who consumed more than 20% or more of their calories from ultra-processed foods had a higher risk of dementia. On a 2000 calorie diet, that equates to just 400 calories a day from ultra-processed foods. That’s about 20 chips or 30 fries. Bottom line – it’s not much.
This isn’t the first study linking poor health outcomes to ultra-processed foods. Several studies have found links to eating ultra-processed foods with poor mental health, increased risk of cancer and heart disease, and shortened lifespan. Previous studies, including one published in September 2022 that included more than 72,000 people, have also demonstrated a link between ultra-processed foods and dementia.
What are ultra-processed foods?
The study defined ultra-processed foods as “industrial formulations of food substances (oils, fats, sugars, starch, and protein isolates) that contain little or no whole foods and typically include flavors, colors, emulsifiers and other cosmetic additives”. Plus, ultra-processed foods are cheap, quick, and have a long shelf life. Examples included sugary drinks, frozen dinners, processed red meat, potato chips, frozen french fries, store-bought cookies, sugary breakfast cereals, refined grain pretzels, and commercial bread.
How do ultra-processed foods harm your health?
Ultra-processed foods have many fatal flaws, but one of the biggest is that they provide calories, fat, sugar, and sodium with little or no nutrient density. Studies also show that it’s hard to stop eating them once someone starts. Therefore, they can also contribute to weight gain and obesity. In the current study, researchers found that ultra-processed foods negatively impact areas of the brain related to cognitive function. Finally, ultra-processed foods increase inflammation in the brain, which is another precipitating factor in cognitive decline.
Reducing your risk of dementia can start by eating fewer ultra-processed foods and more whole foods. Additionally, changing other components of your diet can also help.
6 Habits to Ditch for Better Brain Health
Consume a bland color scheme.
The current study showed that consuming more than 20% of your calories from ultra-processed foods could lead to an increased risk of dementia. However, the study also showed that this risk was not seen in people who ate large amounts of unprocessed foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. The best way to eat more whole foods is to count the colors in your diet and aim for at least five or more a day. The darker a plant is, the better its benefits for your health. Stock up on dark-colored fruits like berries and apples. Use deeply colored roots and herbs (like turmeric) to season meals and snacks instead of salt, and replace processed snacks with homemade snacks. For example, make beet chips instead of buying potato chips.
Consuming too little fiber.
Ultra-processed foods often contain little or no fiber. A 2022 study found that low-fiber diets were associated with an increased risk of dementia. To get more fiber in your diet, eat more beans, legumes, whole grains, fruits and vegetables. For example, eat steel-cut oats for breakfast instead of sugary cereal or store-bought pastries.
Make all your processed protein choices.
A 2021 study found that excessive consumption of processed meat may increase the risk of dementia. If you currently eat a lot of animal protein, consider eating more fatty wild fish and skinless poultry while limiting your bacon and sausage intake.
Smoking – and drinking too much.
Alcohol and smoking are two powerful brain toxins. While the MIND diet (a diet associated with a lower risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s) allows one glass of wine a day for both men and women, many people find it difficult to continue drinking at moderate levels and may exceed the recommended 5 ounces. Studies show that the more alcohol you drink, the higher your risk of dementia. Additionally, smoking has been shown to pose a 50% higher risk of vascular dementia in current users. Drink less (or not at all) and if you currently smoke, find resources to help you quit.
Live the couch potato life.
A 2022 systematic review and meta-analysis found that sedentary behavior was independently associated with a significantly increased risk of dementia. The good news? You don’t have to run a marathon to reduce the risk. Just walking a few days a week can help. Exercise helps increase blood flow to the brain. Any activity – even a little can be significantly better than nothing.
Have a night owl mentality.
Sleep is an essential part of overall health and longevity. A 2019 study found that lower sleep quality in the 50s and 60s led to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. If you sleep less than 7 hours a night, take steps to improve your duration and quality, such as limiting screen time at night or blocking out your bedroom light.
Finally, consider taking the words “it’s too late“ out of your vocabulary. Dementia does not happen overnight. Researchers believe that you can develop Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias several years before symptoms appear. Some studies show that you can go nearly two decades before diagnosis. It’s never too late to change your lifestyle, and studies show that diet changes, even in middle age, can delay or prevent changes in the brain.
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