Dementia warning: Food accounting for 50% of UK energy intake may hike your risk by 25%
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The rise of dementia is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it reflects people are living longer than ever before, which points to improved living standards. On the other hand, age is the preeminent risk factor for dementia, which spells trouble for families and healthcare systems alike. Fortunately, age is inevitable but dementia is not. And a new study underscores this point.
People who eat the highest amounts of ultra-processed foods such as soft drinks, chips and cookies may have a higher risk of developing dementia than those who eat the lowest amounts, according to a new study published in the journal Neurology.
The study did provide some green shoots too. Researchers also found that replacing ultra-processed foods in a person’s diet with unprocessed or minimally processed foods was associated with a lower risk.
It’s important to note that the study does not prove that ultra-processed foods cause dementia. It only shows an association.
The association is nonetheless concerning. A BMJ study suggests ultra-processed foods make up more than 50 percent of total energy intake in the UK.
“Ultra-processed foods are meant to be convenient and tasty, but they diminish the quality of a person’s diet,” said study author Huiping Li, PhD, of Tianjin Medical University in China.
“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 that ultra-processed foods are associated with an increased risk of dementia, it found replacing them with healthy options may decrease dementia risk.”
For the study, researchers identified 72,083 people from the UK Biobank, a large database containing the health information of half a million people living in the United Kingdom.
Participants were age 55 and older and did not have dementia at the start of the study.
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They were followed for an average of 10 years. By the end of the study, 518 people were diagnosed with dementia.
During the study, participants filled out at least two questionnaires about what they ate and drank the previous day.
Researchers determined how much ultra-processed food people ate by calculating the grams per day and comparing it to the grams per day of other foods to create a percentage of their daily diet.
They then divided participants into four equal groups from lowest percentage consumption of ultra-processed foods to highest.
On average, ultra-processed foods made up nine percent of the daily diet of people in the lowest group, an average of 225 grams per day, compared to 28 percent for people in the highest group, or an average of 814 grams per day.
One serving of items such as pizza or fish sticks was equivalent to 150 grams. The main food group contributing to high ultra-processed food intake was beverages, followed by sugary products and ultra-processed dairy.
In the lowest group, 105 of the 18,021 people developed dementia, compared to 150 of the 18,021 people in the highest group.
After adjusting for age, gender, family history of dementia and heart disease and other factors that could affect risk of dementia, researchers found that for every 10 percent increase in daily intake of ultra-processed foods, people had a 25 percent higher risk of dementia.
Researchers also used study data to estimate what would happen if a person substituted 10 percent of ultra-processed foods with unprocessed or minimally processed foods, like fresh fruit, vegetables, legumes, milk and meat. They found that such a substitution was associated with a 19 percent lower risk of dementia.
Doctor Rosa Sancho, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “This study is the first to look at associations between dementia risk and consuming ultra-processed foods, such as pre-packed meals and snacks, breakfast cereals and soft drinks.
“We don’t know for sure why people who eat ultra-processed foods show an increased risk of dementia. The researchers suggest it could be because these diets involve lower levels of important nutrients like fibre, because they include too much sugar and sodium, or because they may lead to high blood pressure or inflammation, which can be bad for long-term brain health.
“While the researchers have run a careful analysis, it’s impossible to be certain that this link is down to differences in diet rather than other lifestyle factors that may go along with eating more ultra-processed food.
“The research took the total calorie intake of the participants into account, so the link shouldn’t be a result of people who eat ultra-processed foods simply eating more.
“We know that what is good for our heart health is also good for our brain health, so we encourage people to stay active, socially connected and involved in activities and hobbies that they enjoy. It is also important to maintain a healthy balanced lifestyle. You can find out more about how to look after your brain health at www.thinkbrainhealth.org.uk.”
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