Study Shows That Highly Processed Foods Are Bad for Older Brains

Based on new research at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, eating a diet high in unhealthy food is a risk for the brain when it comes to aging.

Researchers surveyed the eating habits and mental performance of nearly 11,000 Brazilian adults over the course of years.

A study found that people whose intake of ultra-processed foods was the highest had a faster rate of cognitive decline than those whose intake of these unhealthy foods was the lowest.

Brain health benefits from cooking at home with fresher ingredients instead of buying ready-made meals and snacks, says Natalia Goncalves, PhD, of the University of São Paulo Medical School in Brazil.

And to read this news is disturbing but not surprising because new data reveals that ultra-processed foods can quicken the rate of mental deterioration, Percy Griffin, PhD, director of scientific engagement for the Alzheimer’s Association, tells WebMD.

Almost half of the American diet consists of ultra-processed foods.

Sugar, fat, and salt are added to these foods, and they are low in protein and fiber. You’ll find all of these in a vending machine: sodas, chips, candy, ice cream, cereal, chicken nuggets, hot dogs, fries, and so much more.

A steady rise in the consumption of highly processed foods has been observed worldwide for the past 30 years. It has been linked to a range of conditions, including overweight/obesity, heart disease, and cancer.

Griffin says the new study adds to a growing body of evidence that “what we eat can have an impact on our brains as we age.”

As compared to those who ate less than 20% of their daily calories from ultra-processed foods, those who ate more than 20% of their daily calories from ultra-processed foods experienced faster declines in cognitive function and faster decreases in executive function. (Executive function is a mental set of skills including working memory, thinking flexibly, and maintaining self-control.)

In the case of someone who consumes 2,000 kcal a day, 20% of daily calories come from ultra-processed foods, such as two 1.5 oz KitKat bars, five slices of bread, or about a third of an 8.5-oz bag of chips, Goncalves says.

“The good news,” says Griffin, “is that there are steps we can take to reduce the risk of cognitive decline when we get older.” These include consuming a balanced diet, exercising regularly, getting good sleep, staying mentally active, protecting our head from injury, not smoking, and managing our heart health.

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