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Eating Ultra-Processed Foods Linked to Cognitive Decline and Stroke

Those who consume more ultra-processed foods may face a higher risk of cognitive issues and stroke than those who eat less, new research has found.

The vast majority of Americans consume at least some ultra-processed foods (UPF) in their daily diet, but new research suggests that exactly how much can have a major impact on brain health.

The research, published in Neurology, found that individuals who eat higher amounts of UPFs — including soft drinks, salty and sugary packaged snacks, processed meats, packaged breads, and flavored cereals — may have a higher risk of experiencing cognitive decline and stroke than those who consume smaller amounts.

Researchers analyzed data from 30,239 people and found that increased consumption of UPFs led to a 9% increased risk of stroke and a 12% increased risk of cognitive decline. For Black participants, the association between UPFs and stroke was even greater, presenting an increased risk of 15%.

Researchers also studied diets low in UPFs and red meats and high in fruits and vegetables, such as the Mediterranean diet, and found that this way of eating was associated with decreased risks of cognitive decline and stroke.

The findings are significant because 73% of the United States food supply is ultra-processed — meaning fats, starches, sugars, salts, or hydrogenated oils have been added to them to enhance their taste and shelf-life — and it’s becoming increasingly difficult and expensive for Americans to stay away from these foods. As a result, UPFs make up the bulk of many Americans’ diets.

In addition to cognitive decline, UPF consumption is linked to a variety of health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, and cancer. This new study adds to previous research that it can impact neurological health, too.

The degree of processing was also found to play a role in the impact on brain health.

“It’s important for individuals to pay attention to not just what foods they eat, but how those foods are processed before they eat them,” says senior author of the study W. Taylor Kimberly, M.D., Ph.D., chief of the Division of Neurocritical Care at MGH, in a news release. “The good news is that even modest cutbacks in consumption of UPFs are associated with meaningful brain health benefits.”

Indeed, the researchers found that even incremental changes in UPF consumption can lower the risks of cognitive decline and stroke, suggesting that just small dietary adjustments can help improve the brain health of the average individual.

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