Ultra‑Processed Foods in Diet Linked to Higher Risk of Dementia: Study


Aug 2, 2022


Image Credits: Alamy/Denise D'souza for The Swaddle

In a study published by the American Academy of Neurology last week, scientists found associations between dementia and a high consumption of ultra-processed foods. They further suggested that reducing the amount of ultra-processed foods in diets was linked to a lower risk of dementia. Ultra-processed foods — food that has been altered entirely from its raw source, processed substantially and at an industrial scale, and usually sold by transnational food corporations — are often made from low-cost ingredients, carry a high amount of fat, salt and sugar, while being low in protein and fiber. Soft drinks, packaged snacks, deep-fried chicken, ice cream, packaged breads and flavored cereals are all examples of ultra-processed food.

These food items are designed to be convenient and palatable, hence increasing people’s dependence on them to complete their diet. For instance, according to a 2016 study, 56% of all the calories consumed in the US came from ultra-processed foods. However, while these foods may be attractive to consumers for their taste, “they diminish the quality of a person’s diet”, study co-author Huiping Li told ScienceDaily. “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,” he added.

For their research, the scientists looked at data from the UK Biobank — a large-scale, long-term biomedical research database of half a million participants — to identify the associations between dementia and the presence of ultra-processed foods in diet. The scientists identified 72,083 people — aged 55 and older — who did not have dementia at the start of the study, and then followed them for a period of ten years. The participants in this period filled out questionnaires based on what they ate and drank the previous day. Researchers created a percentage of ultra-processed foods in participants’ diets by by computing the grams per day of such foods and juxtaposing it against the grams per day of other foods. Based on this data, the scientists then divided the participants into four equal groups, from those with the lowest percentage of ultra-processed foods in their diets to those with the highest.

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At the end of the period of study, 518 of the participants were diagnosed with dementia. Among them, 150 belonged to the group that reported the highest percentage consumption — up to 28% or 814 grams per day — of ultra-processed foods in their daily diet. On the other hand, on the group that reported the lowest percentage consumption — 9% or 225 grams per day — 105 participants were diagnosed with dementia. Once scientists adjusted the data for age, gender, family history of dementia and other factors, they found that for every 10% increase in the intake of ultra-processed foods, people developed a 25% higher risk of dementia. They then also estimated the consequences of substituting 10% of ultra-processed foods in daily diets with healthier alternatives like vegetables, fruit, meat, and milk, and found that this was associated with a 19% lower risk of dementia.

“Our results also show increasing unprocessed or minimally processed foods by only 50 grams 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 3% decreased risk of dementia,” Li told ScienceDaily. “It’s encouraging to know that small and manageable changes in the diet may make a difference in a person’s risk of dementia.”

Li highlighted that their study only looked at a correlation between the consumption of ultra-processed foods and dementia, and noted that there is need for further research to confirm the findings of their study. Another limitation of the study is that the cases of dementia were determined by looking at hospital data and death registries instead of primary care data, which may have led to an overlooking of minor cases.

The study is a reminder that although ultra-processed foods today are inescapable, and some of them may inadvertently end up in daily diets, there is a need to minimize their consumption. It further shows that substituting ultra-processed foods with healthier, minimally processed foods may not only prevent the risk of catching health hazards but actually reduce such risks.


Written By Amlan Sarkar

Amlan Sarkar is a staff writer at TheSwaddle. He writes about the intersection between pop culture and politics. You can reach him on Instagram @amlansarkr.


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