Ultra-processed foods increase risk of strokes and brain damage, long-term study finds

Link between diet and neurological function was tracked in more than 30,000 people aged 45 and over

Consumption of ultra-processed foods such as breakfast cereals has been associated with declining brain health in a US study of more than 30,000 people. Reuters
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Eating ultra-processed foods such as burgers, packaged bread and flavoured cereals exposes people to an increased risk of brain damage, including memory loss and stroke, a new long-term research study has found.

Over 11 years, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston monitored the diets of more than 30,000 people aged 45 and over, who had no history of cognitive decline or stroke.

It found that the risk of a stroke was 8 per cent higher in people who ate more ultra-processed foods, dropping by 9 per cent if their diets featured more unprocessed or minimally processed foods.

We know from the observation of people living on farms or rural areas who grow their own foods, they are less likely to develop cognitive problems
Dr Jawad Fazal, neurologist at Burjeel Medical City, Abu Dhabi

Published by the American Academy of Neurology, the study also showed that a 10 per cent increase in the amount of ultra-processed foods eaten was linked to a 16 per cent higher risk of cognitive impairment.

The study

Researchers tracked the diet of each participant via a food questionnaire and mapped its impact on their brain health.

Participants were divided into two groups to check for cognitive decline and strokes.

Ultra-processed foods made up 25.8 per cent of the diets of those who developed memory and thinking problems, and 24.6 per cent of the diets of those who did not develop cognitive problems.

Of the 20,243 participants monitored for brain health, 1,108 experienced a stroke.

“We found that increased consumption of ultra-processed foods was associated with a higher risk of both stroke and cognitive impairment,” said study author Dr William Taylor Kimberly.

“Our findings show that the degree of food processing plays an important role in overall brain health.”

There is, however, no clear mandate on “the most important dietary choices for (your) brain”, Dr Kimberly added.

Researchers also found eating fewer processed foods led to a 12 per cent lower risk of mental decline and 9 per cent drop in stroke risk.

Slowed decline

Dr Jawad Fazal, a consultant in neurology and stroke medicine at Burjeel Medical City in Abu Dhabi, said the link between processed foods and cognitive decline was unsurprising.

“We know that people who eat fatty foods with high salt in their diet are at increased risk of heart conditions, and if you go back 10 or 20 years ago we were probably not paying a lot of attention to brain health,” he said.

“However, when we started to see the rise in strokes, people realised there were the same risk factors to the brain which caused people to have heart attacks.”

A build-up of arterial plaque from a diet high in fat and salt is known to cause blood clots leading to the heart aorta, causing cardiac problems.

A similar effect from intracranial atherosclerotic disease causes blockages in blood vessels leading to the brain, causing a stroke.

In the UAE, the Ministry of Health and Prevention has launched a national heath and nutrition survey, to assess the diets of the population and how often they access healthcare.

It is hoped the results from 20,000 households can help determine future health requirements and lifestyle education.

“A build-up of plaque in the brain’s blood vessels is something we commonly see in the UAE,” said Dr Fazal, highlighting an evident link between a healthy diet and good cognitive function.

“We know from observing people living on farms and growing their own foods that they are less likely to develop cognitive problems, or experience issues later in life.”

Dr Fazal also advised people to get checked if they notice their memory is declining.

“We see where exactly they can make lifestyle changes to try and improve, or at least minimise the chance of developing cognitive issues.”

Updated: May 23, 2024, 12:12 PM