It’s common knowledge that eating a good diet is best for your health, but did you know that ultra-processed foods can contribute to many health problems, including dementia?
What are ultra-processed foods
Ultra-processed foods come pre-packaged and are highly refined. Things like chips, soda, frozen dinners, and packaged desserts. The less the food looks like the raw ingredients, the more processed it is. Ultra-processed foods typically contain a lot of preservatives, modified food substances, dyes, and cosmetic additives. They are typically designed to be highly profitable, convenient, and hyper-palatable.
To identify these foods, look for additives like flavor additives, color additives, preservatives, or food substances that you can’t cook with in your home kitchen (high-fructose corn syrup, hydrolyzed proteins).
Are ultra-processed foods bad for you?
Multiple studies have shown that ultra-processed foods are associated with poor health outcomes. Studies have shown that high consumption of ultra-processed foods is associated with a 29% increase in the risk of developing colon cancer. Other studies have shown a 12% increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Yet another study showed that ultra-processed foods are associated with an increased risk of premature death from any cause. Ultra-processed foods may also contribute to mental health conditions such as depression.
Dementia is a very common problem in the United States. It is estimated that, in the United States, more than 7 million adults over 65 had dementia in 2020. This could rise to more than 9 million by 2030 and 12 million by 2040.
There is a significant cost associated with dementia in terms of both financial burden and family stress. Out-of-pocket costs for people with dementia are about 80% higher than their peers without dementia. When you account for the value of unpaid family care, the cost in the last 5 years of life is nearly $300,000. With a disease causing this much cost and burden, you may be looking for ways to minimize your risks of developing dementia.
Dementia comes in many forms: Alzheimer’s, frontotemporal, lewy body, vascular, mixed, and secondary. Secondary dementia is dementia due to other medical conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, Crutzfelt-Jakob, Huntington’s disease, or traumatic brain injury.
The link between ultra-processed foods and dementia
Recent studies in 2022 showed a significant link between ultra-processed foods and dementia. The study, performed in the United Kingdom, looked at adults 55 and older and used dietary questionnaires to evaluate their diets in addition to a range of other measures. This study found that an increase in the consumption of ultra-processed foods increased the risk of dementia by about 25%. The link appears to be strongest when more than 20% of the calories (about 400 calories in a normal 2,000-per-day diet) is ultra-processed. It is estimated that more than 50% of the average American calorie intake is ultra-processed calories.
About half the patients that developed dementia developed vascular dementia. Vascular dementia is associated with heart and circulation problems such as heart attack and stroke. Many times this type of dementia is associated with small strokes that the patient may not even know that they have.
The good news is that decreasing your ultra-processed food intake will help lower your risk of dementia. The study found that substituting unprocessed or minimally processed foods would lower the risk of dementia and vascular dementia (but not Alzheimer’s dementia). Decreasing intake by 5–20% was associated with a decrease in the risk of dementia of 10–34%.
Decreasing your intake of ultra-processed foods has several health benefits. Since ultra-processed foods are associated with diabetes, cancer, dementia, and death, decreasing your intake can help to decrease your risk of all of these illnesses. There’s never a bad time to start eating healthier.
For additional ways to decrease your risk of developing dementia and other chronic health conditions, talk to your healthcare provider.
Dr. Foglesong Stabile is a board-certified Family Physician who enjoys full scope Family Medicine, including obstetrics, women’s health, and endoscopy, as well as caring for children and adults of all ages. She also teaches the family medicine clerkship for Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences.