Common Food Group Is Linked to Memory Problems and Strokes

Advertising Disclosure: When you buy something by clicking links on our site, we may earn a small commission, but it never affects the products or services we recommend.

A man looking at cookies
Rohane Hamilton /

Eating soda, chips and cookies is not only bad for your waistline, but it also may put your brain’s health in jeopardy, a recent study finds.

Eating more ultra-processed foods is associated with a higher risk of memory and thinking problems, as well as stroke, according to research published in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

Such foods are high in added sugar, fat and salt while also being low in protein and fiber.

For the observational study, researchers looked at more than 30,000 adults, age 45 and older, who were followed for 11 years, on average.

The participants had no history of cognitive impairment or stroke at the start of the study. Over the course of the study period, however, 768 participants were diagnosed with cognitive impairment and 1,108 suffered a stroke.

The researchers concluded that a 10% increase in the amount of ultra-processed foods someone eats was associated with a 16% higher risk of cognitive impairment. Eating more unprocessed or minimally processed foods, on the other hand, was associated with a 12% lower risk of cognitive impairment.

The researchers arrived at these figures after examining questionnaires about what the study participants ate and drank, and then accounting for age, sex, high blood pressure and other factors that impact the risk of dementia.

Meanwhile, the risk of stroke among those who indulged in more ultra-processed foods was 8% higher overall — and 15% higher among Black participants specifically. On the other hand, those who ate more unprocessed or minimally processed foods saw their stroke risk decrease by 9%.

So, which types of foods should you avoid if you want to reduce the risk of harming your brain? Examples of ultra-processed foods listed in a summary of the researchers’ findings include:

  • Soft drinks
  • Salty and sugary snacks
  • Ice cream
  • Hamburger
  • Canned baked beans
  • Ketchup
  • Mayonnaise
  • Packaged breads
  • Flavored cereals

Examples of unprocessed or minimally processed foods include fruits and vegetables and simple cuts of beef, pork and chicken.

Because the study was observational, it can only establish a connection — not a direct, cause-and-effect relationship — between diet and risk of cognitive decline or stroke. So, the researchers can’t say exactly what it is about ultra-processed foods that might harm brain health.

As study author Dr. W. Taylor Kimberly, a stroke and critical care neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, notes:

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

Still, Kimberly’s study is not the first to link ultra-processed foods with negative effects on brain health. To learn more, check out “Another Study Links Highly Processed Foods to Brain Decline” and “This Popular Type of Food Is Linked to Higher Dementia Risk.”

Get smarter with your money!

Want the best money-news and tips to help you make more and spend less? Then sign up for the free Money Talks Newsletter to receive daily updates of personal finance news and advice, delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for our free newsletter today.