This Popular Type of Food Is Linked to Higher Dementia Risk

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Zoriana Zaitseva /

If you love to eat cookies, chips and ice cream, an expanding waistline might be the least of your worries.

Eating such ultra-processed foods is associated with a higher risk of being diagnosed with dementia, according to a study recently published in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

On the other hand, replacing such foods with unprocessed or minimally processed foods might reduce your dementia risk.

One caveat, however: The observational study shows an association between a diet high in ultra-processed foods and a greater risk of dementia, but it does not prove that eating ultra-processed foods causes people to decline cognitively. (Observational studies, unlike scientific experiments in which researchers can control key variables, cannot prove cause and effect.)

Foods that are ultra-processed usually have a lot of added sugar, fat and salt. They also tend to have lower levels of protein and fiber.

Examples of such foods are:

  • Soft drinks
  • Salty and sugary snacks
  • Sausage
  • Deep-fried chicken
  • Yogurt
  • Canned baked beans and tomatoes
  • Ketchup
  • Mayonnaise
  • Packaged guacamole and hummus
  • Packaged breads
  • Flavored cereals
  • Pizza
  • Fish sticks

In a press release, lead author Huiping Li of the Tianjin Medical University in China acknowledges that such foods are tasty. But he says consuming them could lead to negative health outcomes:

“These foods may also contain food additives or molecules from packaging or produced during heating, all of which have been shown in other studies to have negative effects on thinking and memory skills. Our research not only found that ultra-processed foods are associated with an increased risk of dementia, it found replacing them with healthy options may decrease dementia risk.”

In reaching their conclusions, researchers analyzed data from more than 72,000 people included in the UK Biobank database who were followed for an average of 10 years.

All participants — who filled out questionnaires about what they ate and drank — were at least 55 years old and reported no dementia at the beginning of the study.

The participants were divided into four groups based on the amount of ultra-processed foods they consumed. By the time the study closed a decade later, 518 people had been diagnosed with dementia:

  • In a group that included those who ate the least ultra-processed foods, 105 of the 18,021 people developed dementia.
  • In a group that included those who ate the most ultra-processed foods, 150 of the 18,021 people developed dementia.

The researchers concluded that every 10% increase in daily intake of ultra-processed foods was associated with a 25% increase in the risk of dementia.

By contrast, reducing ultra-processed foods by 10% and replacing them with unprocessed or minimally processed foods — such as fresh fruit, vegetables, legumes, milk and meat — was associated with a 19% decrease in the risk of dementia.

Li concludes: “It’s encouraging to know that small and manageable changes in diet may make a difference in a person’s risk of dementia.”

For more news about preventing dementia, check out “3 Antioxidants Linked to Lower Dementia Risk.”

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