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Study links increased consumption of ultra-processed foods to cognitive decline and stroke

Study links increased consumption of ultra-processed foods to cognitive decline and stroke


People who eat a lot of ultra-processed foods, such as soft drinks, chips, and cookies, may be at higher risk of memory and thinking problems and stroke than people who eat less processed foods, according to a new study published online May 22, 2024. Neurology®Medical Journal of the American Academy of Neurology. This study doesn't prove that eating ultra-processed foods causes memory or thinking problems, or strokes, it just shows an association.

Ultra-processed foods are foods that are high in added sugars, fat and salt and low in protein and fiber. These include soft drinks, salty and sugary snacks, ice cream, burgers, canned baked beans, ketchup, mayonnaise, packaged breads, flavored cereals, etc. Unprocessed or minimally processed foods include meats such as beef, pork and chicken, vegetables and fruits.

“A healthy diet is important for maintaining brain health in older adults, but the dietary choices most important for the brain remain unclear,” said study author W. Taylor Kimberly, MD, of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. “We found that increased intake of ultra-processed foods was associated with an increased risk of both stroke and cognitive impairment, and the association between ultra-processed foods and stroke was greater in black participants.”

For the study, researchers surveyed 30,239 people age 45 and older who identified as black or white. They were followed for an average of 11 years.

Participants filled out a questionnaire about what they ate and drank. To determine how much ultra-processed foods people ate, the researchers calculated the grams per day and compared that to the grams per day of other foods to calculate the percentage of the daily diet. The percentages were calculated for four groups, from least processed to most processed.

Overall, the researchers looked at 14,175 participants for cognitive decline and 20,243 for stroke. Neither group had a history of cognitive impairment or stroke.

By the end of the study, 768 people had been diagnosed with cognitive impairment and 1,108 had suffered a stroke.

In the cognitive group, those with memory or thinking problems consumed 25.8% of their diet from ultra-processed foods, compared with 24.6% for those without cognitive problems.

After adjusting for age, sex, high blood pressure and other factors that may affect dementia risk, the researchers found that a 10% increase in intake of ultra-processed foods was associated with a 16% higher risk of cognitive impairment.

They also found that eating more unprocessed or minimally processed foods was associated with a 12% lower risk of cognitive impairment.

In the stroke group, those who had a stroke during the study period consumed 25.4% of their diet from ultra-processed foods, compared with 25.1% in those without a stroke.

After adjustment, the researchers found that a higher intake of ultra-processed foods was associated with an 8% increased risk of stroke, whereas a higher intake of unprocessed or minimally processed foods was associated with a 9% decreased risk of stroke.

The effect of ultra-processed food intake on stroke risk was greater in black participants, with a 15% relative increase in stroke risk.

“Our findings suggest that the degree of food processing plays an important role in overall brain health,” Kimberly said. “Further research is needed to confirm these results and better understand which food and processing components are most responsible for these effects.”

A limitation of this study is that only participants who self-identified as Black or White were included in the study, so the results may not be generalizable to other populations of people.

The research was funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the National Institute on Aging, the National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Health and Human Services.




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