Ultra-processed foods linked to higher risk of cognitive decline and stroke

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A recent study published in the online issue of Neurology on May 22 has revealed a concerning association between the consumption of ultra-processed foods and an increased risk of memory and thinking problems, as well as stroke.

Conducted by researchers, including W. Taylor Kimberly, MD, Ph.D., from Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, the study emphasizes that while it doesn’t establish causality, the correlation highlights potential health risks from diets high in ultra-processed foods.

Ultra-processed foods, characterized by high levels of added sugars, fats, and salt but low in protein and fiber, include common items such as soft drinks, chips, cookies, ice cream, and fast food.

The research contrasts these with unprocessed or minimally processed foods like simple cuts of meat and fresh fruits and vegetables, which are more beneficial to health.

The study analyzed dietary habits and health outcomes of 30,239 participants aged 45 or older, who identified as either Black or white, over an average follow-up period of eleven years.

Participants provided dietary data through questionnaires, which researchers used to calculate the percentage of ultra-processed foods in their daily diets.

Out of those monitored for cognitive health, 14,175 individuals were assessed for cognitive decline, and 20,243 were evaluated for stroke risk, all of whom had no prior history of cognitive impairment or stroke.

By the study’s end, 768 individuals were diagnosed with cognitive impairment, and 1,108 experienced a stroke.

Findings indicated that individuals who developed cognitive problems had a slightly higher intake of ultra-processed foods (25.8%) compared to those who did not develop cognitive issues (24.6%).

After adjusting for variables like age, sex, and high blood pressure, researchers found that every 10% increase in ultra-processed food consumption was associated with a 16% increase in the risk of cognitive impairment.

Conversely, a higher intake of unprocessed or minimally processed foods was associated with a 12% decrease in the risk of cognitive impairment.

Similarly, the stroke analysis showed that those who had a stroke consumed 25.4% of their diet as ultra-processed foods, slightly more than those who did not have a stroke (25.1%).

After adjustments, a greater intake of ultra-processed foods correlated with an 8% increase in stroke risk. More notably, the impact of ultra-processed foods on stroke risk was more pronounced among Black participants, showing a 15% relative increase in risk.

Kimberly highlighted the need for further research to confirm these findings and to explore which specific foods or components contribute most significantly to the observed health impacts.

The study’s limitation includes its demographic scope, as only participants identifying as Black or white were included, potentially limiting the generalizability of the findings to other populations.

This study underscores the critical role of diet in maintaining brain health and managing stroke risk, advocating for a cautious approach to consuming ultra-processed foods and encouraging diets richer in natural, minimally processed foods.

If you care about brain health, please read studies about inflammation that may actually slow down cognitive decline in older people, and low vitamin D may speed up cognitive decline.

For more information about brain health, please see recent studies about common exercises that could protect against cognitive decline, and results showing that this MIND diet may protect your cognitive function, prevent dementia.

The research findings can be found in Neurology.

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