Study: Association Between Consumption of Ultra-processed Foods and Cognitive Decline. Image Credit: Ekaterina Markelova /

Eating ultra-processed foods increases the risk of cognitive decline

In recent JAMA Neurology Researchers report that consumption of ultra-processed foods (UPF) increases the risk of cognitive decline, especially in middle-aged adults.

Studies: Association between consumption of ultra-processed foods and cognitive decline. Image credit: Ekaterina Markelová /

What factors contribute to dementia?

In 2019, dementia was estimated to affect about 57 million worldwide, with 153 million cases expected by 2050 due to global increases in life expectancy. Despite being one of the most significant causes of disability in high-income countries, there is still a lack of effective treatments to prevent or delay the development of dementia symptoms.

However, lifestyle habits such as regular physical activity, a healthy diet and not smoking appear to reduce the likelihood of developing dementia. In particular, daily consumption of whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and fish is associated with increased brain volume and preservation of cognitive function over time.

Health effects of UPF

UPFs, which are food products that consist of highly processed food components such as oils, fats, sugars, starch and protein isolates, offer no health benefit to the consumer. In addition to these ingredients, UPFs also often consist of artificial flavors, colors, emulsifiers, and other cosmetic ingredients. Some examples of common UPFs include breakfast cereals, sweet and salty snacks, ice cream, ready-to-eat frozen meals, processed meats, and sugar-sweetened beverages.

Over the past 40 years, UPF production in the global food industry has increased substantially. In fact, recent estimates suggest that UPF accounts for 58% of calories consumed by US citizens, 57% of calories consumed by British citizens, 48% of calories consumed by Canadian citizens, and 30% of calories consumed by Brazilian citizens.

Previous studies suggest that widespread consumption of UPF is directly related to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, and obesity. However, given the lack of data on the correlation of UPF consumption and dementia risk, the current study aimed to better understand this potential association.

About studying

In the current multicenter prospective cohort study, individuals aged 35 to 74 years were recruited from six different cities throughout Brazil, including Belo Horizonte, Porto Alegre, Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, São Paolo, and Vitoria. Data from study participants were collected in three waves approximately four years apart, beginning in 2008 and ending in 2019.

At the beginning of the study, study participants provided information about the frequency with which they consumed various foods and beverages on a daily basis. These food products were classified according to the extent of their industrial processing.

Group 1 food products, for example, included unprocessed or minimally processed foods such as fresh, dried or frozen fruits and vegetables, cereals, meat and milk. Group 2 food products included processed cooking ingredients such as salt, sugar and oils.

Group 3 consisted of processed foods such as preserved fruit, salted, smoked or smoked meat or fish, as well as certain bread and cheese products. Group 4 consisted of UPFs such as flavors, sweeteners and emulsifiers.

Study participants also underwent cognitive assessments up to three times over four years. These assessments included memory tests such as immediate and delayed recall as well as word list recognition tests. Semantic and phonemic verbal fluency tests were also included to assess participants’ executive function abilities.

High UPF consumption associated with cognitive decline

A total of 10,775 participants were included in the study, with an average follow-up of eight years. At the start of the study, the average age of the study participants was about 52 years old, of whom nearly 55% were female, 53% were white, and 57% had a college degree. In addition, the average body mass index (BMI) of study participants at baseline was about 27 with an average total daily caloric intake of 2,856 kcal.

Participants whose daily diet included more than 19.9% ​​UPF experienced a 28% faster rate of global cognitive decline. More specifically, these individuals experienced a 25% faster decline in executive function, while no significant change was observed with respect to their memory function.

Notably, study participants who were younger than age 60 were more likely to experience global cognitive decline compared to those age 60 or older who consumed similarly high levels of UPF in their daily diet.

The researchers hypothesize that this decline in executive function could be due to cerebrovascular lesions caused by chronic UPF consumption. UPF consumption may also increase the circulation of pro-inflammatory factors that subsequently lead to systemic inflammation affecting the brain.

Taken together, study results obtained from a large population-based cohort highlight the importance of limiting UPF consumption, particularly in middle-aged adults, to preserve cognitive integrity.

Link to journal:

  • Goncalves, NG, Ferreira, NV, Khandpur, N., et al. (2022). Association between consumption of ultra-processed foods and cognitive decline. JAMA Neurology. doi:10.1001/jamaneurol.2022.4397.

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