Scientists have known for years that unhealthy diets — particularly those that are high in fat and sugar — may cause detrimental changes to the brain and lead to cognitive impairment.
Many factors that contribute to cognitive decline are out of a person’s control, such as genetics and socioeconomic factors. But ongoing research increasingly indicates that a poor diet is a risk factor for memory impairments during normal aging and increases the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
While we don’t have control over many factors affecting cognitive decline, our diet could contribute to the risk of developing conditions like Alzheimer’s as we age. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images News/Getty Images
But when evaluating how some diets may erode brain health as we age, research on the effects of consuming minimally processed versus ultra-processed foods has been scant — that is, until now.
Two recent large-scale studies suggest that eating ultra-processed foods may exacerbate age-related cognitive decline and increase the risk of developing dementia. In contrast, another recent study reported that ultra-processed food consumption was not associated with worse cognition in people over 60.
Although more research is needed, as a neuroscientist who researches how diet can influence cognition later in life, I find that these early studies add a new layer for considering how fundamental nutrition is to brain health.
Lots of ingredients, minimal nutrition
Ultra-processed foods tend to be lower in nutrients and fiber and higher in sugar, fat, and salt compared to unprocessed or minimally processed foods. Some examples of ultra-processed foods include soda, packaged cookies, chips, frozen meals, flavored nuts, flavored yogurt, distilled alcoholic beverages, and fast foods. Even packaged bread, including those high in nutritious whole grains, qualify as ultra-processed in many cases because of the additives and preservatives they contain.
Another way to look at it: You are not likely to find the ingredients that make up most of these foods in your home kitchen.
But don’t confuse ultra-processed with processed foods, which still retain most of their natural characteristics,…