If you’re looking to keep your brain healthy as you age, you may want to lay off the packaged pastries for breakfast, frozen pizza for lunch and ice cream in the evening. Accumulating research suggests that a diet chock-full of highly processed foods could contribute to a decline in memory and thinking skills.
A study published July 27 in the journal Neurology found that the consumption of ultra-processed foods — we’re talking salty snacks, high-sugar treats and preservative-laden frozen dinners — were associated with a higher risk of dementia among a population of more than 72,000 participants ages 55 and older from the UK Biobank study. The team of researchers based at Tianjin Medical University in Tianjin, China, also discovered that replacing these processed foods with minimally processed options was associated with a 19 percent lower risk of dementia.
A second study from Brazil of more than 8,000 middle-aged adults found that people who consumed the highest amounts of ultra-processed foods (more than 20 percent of their daily caloric intake) saw a faster decline in memory, planning and organizational skills over a span of several years, compared with those with lower consumption. The research was presented at the 2022 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference on Aug. 1.
“There are a lot of studies that have already shown that eating [healthy] is good for your heart, but we’re starting to see trends that eating a heart-healthy diet may also be good for your brain,” says Rebecca Edelmayer, senior director of scientific engagement for the Alzheimer’s Association.
A 2017 report from AARP’s Global Council on Brain Health reached a similar conclusion — that what you eat impacts the health of your brain, and that foods high in salt, sugar, excess calories and saturated fats don’t do it any favors. Still, an analysis of national data published in BMJ Open found that ultra-processed foods represent more than half (58 percent) of all calories in the U.S. diet.
The food-brain relationship
Many foods that line the grocery store shelves are considered processed. For example, bagged salads go through minimal processing; so do cans of beans and boxes of frozen vegetables.