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Curbing consumption of ultraprocessed foods may improve brain health

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Cutting back on consuming ultraprocessed foods can reduce your risk of a stroke or cognitive issues later in life, according to a recent study out of Massachusetts General Hospital.

Ultraprocessed foods have “fats, starches, sugars, salts and hydrogenated oils” added to them to “enhance their taste, flavor and shelf life,” the hospital states. Examples: chips, cookies, ready-to-eat meals and snacks, sugary beverages, cold cuts, and sweetened breakfast cereals.

Researchers used data from more than 30,000 people age 45 or older. Of them, around 14,000 were assessed for cognitive decline and over 20,000 for stroke. Both groups, which were followed for an average of 11 years, had no history of cognitive impairment or stroke.

By the end of the study, 768 of the participants were diagnosed with cognitive impairment and 1,108 had experienced a stroke.

Among the participants in the “cognitive impairment” group:

  • After adjusting for factors that could affect risk of dementia, a 10% increase in the amount of ultraprocessed foods eaten was associated with a 16% higher risk of cognitive impairment.
  • Eating more unprocessed or minimally processed foods was linked with a 12% lower risk of cognitive impairment.

For those in the “stroke” group, greater intake of ultraprocessed foods was linked to an 8% increase in risk of stroke, while greater intake of unprocessed or minimally processed foods was linked to a 9% decreased risk of stroke.

“While our study clearly sounds a warning, it also provides hope that there are things we can do as individuals and which policymakers can do on a national scale to reduce UPFs from our daily diets,” said study author W. Taylor Kimberly. “As we found, even incremental changes are associated with a significant difference in improving our brain health, along with lowering our risk for stroke and cognitive decline.”

The study was published online in the journal Neurology.

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