Unhealthy diet = unhealthy mind: Processed foods, sugary drinks can lead to dementia

Eating junk food and regularly consuming sugary drinks could trigger Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, warns new research. Scientists at Tianjin Medical University in China report that every 10 percent increase in daily intake of ultra-processed foods raises the risk of dementia by an alarming 25 percent.

The heavily processed products are high in added sugars, fat and salt, and low in protein and fiber. They range from burgers, chicken nuggets, sausages, pizza and chips to yogurt, baked beans, ice cream, cakes, cookies and soda. Other processed foods include tomato ketchup, mayonnaise, prepared meals, breakfast cereals and packaged guacamole, hummus and breads.

“Ultra-processed foods are meant to be convenient and tasty, but diminish the quality of a person’s diet,” says study lead author Dr. Huiping Li, in a statement. “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 ultra-processed foods are associated with an increased risk of dementia, but also replacing them with healthy options may decrease dementia risk.”

Her team followed more than 73,000 over-55s for an average of ten years. Participants were from the UK Biobank, an ongoing study tracking the health of half a million British citizens. They also also used study data to estimate what would happen if a person substituted 10 per cent of ultra-processed foods with unprocessed or minimally processed alternatives.

Swapping it for fresh fruit, vegetables, legumes like peas or lentils, milk or meat reduced dementia risk by around a fifth (19 percent). Even small changes in one’s diet can make a big difference.

“Our results also show increasing unprocessed or minimally processed foods by only 50 grams (1.8oz) a day, which is equivalent to half an apple, a serving of corn, or a bowl of bran cereal, and simultaneously decreasing ultra-processed foods by 50 grams a day, equivalent to a chocolate bar or a serving of fish sticks, is associated with a three percent decreased risk of dementia,” adds Li. “It’s encouraging to know that small and manageable changes in diet may make a difference in a person’s risk of dementia.”

The number of dementia cases worldwide is set to triple to more than 150 million by 2050. With no cure in sight there’s an increasing focus on protective behaviors, such as eating well.

Surveys about what participants ate and drank the previous day enabled daily dietary percentages of ultra-processed food to be worked out. Participants were then divided up into four equal groups – ranging from lowest to highest.

On average, ultra-processed foods made up nine percent of consumption in the former (8oz on average) – compared to 28 percent for the highest (1lb 13oz). One serving of pizza or fish fingers was equivalent to 5.3oz. The main food group contributing to high ultra-processed food intake was sugary drinks, followed by sugary foods and ultra-processed dairy.

By the end of the study, 518 people were diagnosed with dementia, including 105 of the 18,021 in the lowest group compared to 150 of the 18,021 in the highest. Dr. Li and colleagues took into account age, gender, family history of dementia and heart disease and other factors that could affect risk.

Junk food increases the risk of chronic diseases by ridding the body of “good bacteria.” Obese children have been found to be more prone to dementia decades later.

The findings are in the journal Neurology.

Report by Mark Waghorn, South West News Service

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