More Research Links Ultra-Processed Foods to Increased Risk of Cognitive Decline, Stroke

New research on the risks associated with consuming ultra-processed foods, shows a correlation rather than causation between the consumption of ultra-processed foods and these health issues. The findings are published in the current issue of the journal Neurology

Ultra-processed foods, which are characterized by high levels of added sugar, fat, and salt, but low in protein and fiber, include items like soft drinks, salty and sugary snacks, ice cream, hamburgers, canned baked beans, ketchup, mayonnaise, packaged breads, and flavored cereals. Conversely, unprocessed or minimally processed foods include simple proteins, as well as vegetables and fruits.

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

Researchers analyzed data from 30,239 individuals aged 45 or older who identified as Black or white. These participants were monitored for an average of eleven years. Participants completed questionnaires detailing their dietary habits. Researchers measured the daily intake of ultra-processed foods in grams and calculated what percentage of each participant’s diet was made up of these foods. Participants were then divided into four groups, ranging from those who consumed the least to those who consumed the most ultra-processed foods.


RELATED: Long-Term Study Links Ultra-Processed Meat, Dairy to Higher Mortality Risk

The study focused on two groups: 14,175 participants for cognitive decline and 20,243 participants for stroke, with both groups having no prior history of these conditions. By the conclusion of the study, 768 participants were diagnosed with cognitive impairment, and 1,108 had experienced a stroke.

In the cognitive group, those who developed memory and thinking problems had an average of 25.8 percent of their diet composed of ultra-processed foods, compared to 24.6 percent among those without cognitive issues.

Adjustments for age, sex, high blood pressure, and other dementia risk factors revealed that a 10 percent increase in the intake of ultra-processed foods corresponded to a 16 percent higher risk of cognitive impairment. Conversely, a higher consumption of unprocessed or minimally processed foods was linked to a 12 percent lower risk of cognitive decline.

For the stroke group, those who experienced a stroke consumed an average of 25.4 percent of their diet in ultra-processed foods, slightly higher than the 25.1 percent among those who did not suffer a stroke. After adjustments, a greater intake of ultra-processed foods was associated with an 8 percent increased risk of stroke, whereas a higher intake of unprocessed or minimally processed foods was associated with a 9 percent reduced stroke risk. The impact of ultra-processed food consumption on stroke risk was notably greater among Black participants, with a 15 percent relative increase in stroke risk.

“Our findings show that the degree of food processing plays an important role in overall brain health,” Kimberly stated. “More research is needed to confirm these results and to better understand which food or processing components contribute most to these effects.”

For the latest plant-based news, read: