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Ultra-processed foods directly linked to cognitive decline and stroke risk

Eating more ultra-processed foods like soft drinks, chips, and cookies may be linked to a higher risk of memory and thinking problems, as well as stroke.

This is according to a recent study published in the online issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology (AAN).

Although the study does not prove that ultra-processed foods cause these health issues, it does show a significant association.

What are ultra-processed foods?

Ultra-processed foods are typically high in added sugar, fat, and salt but low in protein and fiber. These foods undergo extensive industrial processing and contain various additives to enhance flavor, texture, and shelf life.

Common examples include soft drinks, salty and sugary snacks, ice cream, hamburgers, canned baked beans, ketchup, mayonnaise, packaged breads, and flavored cereals.

Ultra-processed foods often lack essential nutrients and are designed to be convenient and appealing, which can lead to overconsumption.

In contrast, unprocessed or minimally processed foods retain their natural form and nutritional value. These foods undergo minimal changes and do not contain added sugars, fats, or artificial ingredients.

Examples include simple cuts of beef, pork, and chicken, as well as fresh vegetables and fruits. Unprocessed foods are rich in vitamins, minerals, and other essential nutrients that support overall health.

Diet and brain health

“While a healthy diet is important in maintaining brain health among older adults, the most important dietary choices for your brain remain unclear,” said Dr. W. Taylor Kimberly, the study’s lead author from Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

“We found that increased consumption of ultra-processed foods was associated with a higher risk of both stroke and cognitive impairment, and the association between ultra-processed foods and stroke was greater among Black participants.”

The study examined 30,239 people aged 45 or older who self-identified as Black or white. They were followed for an average of eleven years.

Participants filled out questionnaires about their dietary habits, and researchers calculated the percentage of their daily diet that consisted of ultra-processed foods.

Cognitive decline and stroke risk

Out of the total participants, 14,175 were analyzed for cognitive decline, and 20,243 were analyzed for stroke. Both groups had no history of cognitive impairment or stroke at the beginning of the study. By the end, 768 people were diagnosed with cognitive impairment, and 1,108 had a stroke.

In the cognitive group, those who developed memory and thinking problems consumed 25.8% of their diet in ultra-processed foods, compared to 24.6% for those without cognitive issues.

After adjusting for various factors, a 10% increase in ultra-processed food intake was associated with a 16% higher risk of cognitive impairment. Conversely, eating more unprocessed or minimally processed foods was linked to a 12% lower risk of cognitive impairment.

In the stroke group, individuals who had a stroke consumed 25.4% of their diet in ultra-processed foods, compared to 25.1% for those who did not have a stroke.

Greater intake of ultra-processed foods was linked to an 8% increased risk of stroke, while consuming more unprocessed or minimally processed foods was associated with a 9% decreased risk of stroke.

The effect of ultra-processed food consumption on stroke risk was more pronounced among Black participants, showing a 15% relative increase in risk.

Role of ultra-processed foods in brain health

“Our findings show that the degree of food processing plays an important role in overall brain health,” Kimberly noted. “More research is needed to confirm these results and to better understand which food or processing components contribute most to these effects.”

A limitation of the study was that it only included participants who self-identified as Black or white, so the results may not be generalizable to other populations.

Nevertheless, the study underscores the importance of dietary choices in maintaining cognitive and overall health. Reducing the intake of ultra-processed foods and opting for more unprocessed or minimally processed options could be beneficial strategies for brain health.

By focusing on the quality of the food we consume, we can make informed choices that support our long-term cognitive and physical health.

While further research is needed, this study provides valuable insights into the potential risks associated with ultra-processed foods and the benefits of a more natural diet.


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