Ultra-Processed Food Consumption Leads To Cognitive Decline


The deleterious effects of processed food on human health are known to the scientific community for some time. We all get advice from doctors to avoid processed food to reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases, certain types of cancers, etc. But now studies suggest that ultra-processed food (food that undergoes several steps of processing and refining, such as pizza, pasta, protein isolate, etc.) may harm brain health, and the increased consumption is linked with a decline in cognitive functions and may be an independent risk factor for dementia.

Dementia is a serious degenerative brain disease affecting millions of elderly people worldwide, and lifestyle factors are strongly correlated with the likelihood of whether a person will develop dementia or not. According to the study published in JAMA, the decline may be more pronounced in middle-aged adults and could lead to neurodegenerative diseases and affect the brain areas responsible for executive functions.

The Risk Of Ultra-Processed Food Consumption

Following a healthy diet rich in vegetables, fruits, and nuts rich in essential vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids, and doing regular physical activities like walking, running, cycling, etc., have been linked with a reduced probability of developing dementia. The diet factor is particularly important, because, according to the study, people who followed a diet consisting mostly of ultra-processed food (UPF) had a risk of cognitive decline 28% faster compared to the rest of the population.

The risk of decline in executive functions was 25% faster in those who preferred ultra-processed food compared to the rest. The study suggests that even moderate consumption of ultra-processed food, accounting for 20% of the total daily calorie intake, is sufficient to produce cognitive decline. Interestingly, the test subjects who were below the age of 60, had a higher rate of cognitive decline compared to those aged above 60.

Ultra-Processed Food Consumption

Though the scientists involved in the study have not associated a causal link between the consumption of ultra-processed food and brain diseases, they, nevertheless warn of a strong correlation between the two. However, an interesting thing to note is that if the people who use to eat ultra-processed food also eat a lot of healthy food such as fruits, vegetables, etc., the negative effect of processed food on brain health is somewhat attenuated.

Meanwhile, though the exact mechanism by which ultra-processed food affects brain health remains unclear, scientists think a lot of factors, such as the presence of unhealthy fat, sugar, and additives such as emulsifiers, artificial flavors, etc. could be the reason. The ultra-processed food could also produce pro-inflammatory substances in the body and increase their circulation to the brain, leading to inflammatory responses and brain lesions.

Previously, multiple other studies on ultra-processed food and brain health had also produced similar results, and the results of the study were published in reputed journals of nutrition. These older studies are consistent with the new finding that UPF may harm brain health, both in older adults and middle-aged people.

In an Australian study with a sample size of 2700+ participants, which conducted cognitive assessment tests, researchers found that consuming UPF was associated with lesser performance of cognitive tasks in older people. Researchers concluded that following a Mediterranean-style diet with less processed and ultra-processed food, and high in vegetables, fruits, healthy oils, and spices which are rich in anti-inflammatory compounds associated with less cognitive function decline and risk of dementia.

According to researchers, all these studies clearly indicate a correlation between the quality of the diet and brain function in older adults. A healthy diet can go a long way in preventing degenerative brain conditions, and also protecting against multiple other diseases such as cardiovascular diseases and type 2 diabetes.

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