‘Good nutrition is also essential for brain health’

Ultra-processed food is not an individual, but a social problem, writes general practitioner Staf Henderickx.

During conversations with patients, they often raise the thought: ‘Doctor, if I get dementia, give me an injection.’ The fear of dementia is a specter that defies many people. To reduce the risk of dementia, two new studies show the importance of a healthy diet and the risks of ultra-processed foods.

We already know from studies that ultra-processed foods increase the risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, depression and cancer. A recent Brazilian and Chinese study shows that ultra-processed foods also increase the risk of dementia. And cognitive functions such as language skills deteriorate in any case.

The Chinese study, published in the US journal Neurology, used a UK database of 72,083 people aged 55 or older who were dementia-free at baseline and provided 24-hour dietary assessments at least twice to the UK Biobank study. During the ten-year follow-up, 518 participants developed dementia, of which 287 developed Alzheimer’s disease and 119 developed vascular dementia.

Consumption of ultra-processed foods was clearly associated with a higher risk of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. In addition, the researchers found that replacing 10 percent of ultra-processed foods with unprocessed foods was associated with a 19 percent reduction in dementia risk.

The Brazilian study, presented at the 2022 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in San Diego, followed more than 10,000 Brazilians over 10 years. The average age of the participants was 51 years. Cognitive tests were administered at the beginning and end of the study, including immediate and delayed word recall, word recognition, and verbal fluency. And they were also asked about their dietary habits.

Co-author of the study, Natalia Gonçalves from the University of São Paulo Medical School, summarizes the result: ‘People who got more than 20 percent of their daily calories from processed foods had a 28 percent faster decline in global cognition and a 25 percent. faster decline in global cognition faster decline in executive function compared to people who ate healthy.’

To translate this concretely, someone eating 2,000 calories a day, 20 percent equals about 400 calories. Well, a small portion of fries or a McDonald’s cheeseburger contains a total of 530 calories, which means more than 20 percent.

Rudy Tanzi, professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and author of the bestseller The healing self commented on these studies: ‘The biggest danger of ultra-processed foods is excess sugar, salt and fat, all of which promote systemic inflammation. Because it is convenient as a quick snack, it replaces the vegetable fiber-rich food that is essential for the balance of trillions of bacteria in the gut microbiome and for brain health.’

When you know that in the US 58 percent of calorie consumption consists of ultra-processed foods, 56.8 percent in Great Britain, 48 percent in Canada and more than 30 percent in Belgium, you realize how serious the situation is in Western countries. .

Of course, a healthy diet is not the only way to reduce the risk of dementia. Exercise, sufficient sleep, positive social contacts and an active and creative life are other cornerstones of staying healthy in body and mind (read brain) for as long as possible.

When I pointed out the negative effects of their smoking, drinking and ultra-processed diets on some patients, some shrugged their shoulders thinking, ‘Doctor, rather a short and good life’. The wish of some of them for a short life was fulfilled, but others still lived quite a long time but with a poor quality of life due to all kinds of disabling ailments.

As a medical practitioner, I am not a nutritional fundamentalist and I understand that avoiding ultra-processed foods is not an easy task. The problem of ultra-processed foods is an economic and political problem. This requires a paradigm in agriculture and the food industry. Ultra-processed food is not an individual problem, but a social one. Consumers have the power to turn the tide. Not only by adapting their diets, but also through political pressure and action. Anyone who chooses ‘a long and healthy life’ must be on that side of the barricade.

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