What You Eat Can Cause Cognitive Decline—Know What To Avoid

A piece published by the American Bar Association’s Senior Lawyers Division reports on the international conference of the Alzheimer’s Association. The Division consists of lawyers over age 50. Health is a topic of interest to this group, of which I’m a member. A part of the conference focused on a study of the eating habits of 11.000 Brazilian adults over eight years and the effect of ultra processed foods. The findings were that those who consume diets high in these foods have a 28% decline in cognitive scores as compared with those whose diets are low in these foods.

What Are Ultra Processed Foods?

The study looked at foods including white bread, cookies, mayonnaise, flavored yogurt, margarine, sausage, hamburgers, ham, salami, hot dogs, cereal bars, frozen meals and soda. Doesn’t that sound like what is often in the “typical American diet?” It is not surprising then, that at least one in three Americans will be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease by age 85. And we know that the ramp up to the diagnosis can take years, with gradually decreasing ability in the elder to remember, plan, find words, and execute goals. By the time a person is actually diagnosed with the disease, it may be too late to alter one’s eating habits with disease prevention in mind.

What’s In Ultra Processed Foods That Can Cause Harm To Our Brains?

The research study defined what may be the culprits in these foods that are so common in our diets. The foods in question contain little or no whole foods like fruits, vegetables or meats. They typically include flavorings, emulsifiers, colorings, and other additives. If you are not sure what you are about to buy at the grocery store, check out the label. All those unpronounceable things on the label just might be harmful to your brain health.

One of the researchers, Natalia Gomes Goncalves, Ph.D., cautions that middle age is an important time in life to adopt healthy eating habits, as this. may influence our older years. In other words, what you eat in mid life can create a lot of cognitive issues in aging.

What Does This Mean For The Average American?

Experts in health and aging have repeated for years that our typical diets are not healthy and will likely lead to cognitive decline, among other disease processes. But we resist change, even knowing this. The ultra processed foods we are used to taste good. The media is full of commercials promoting them. The bigger the (ultra processed) burger, the better. The more you consume, the greater the profit the manufacturers make. They advertise and promote their products heavily. As far as I can see, most people have no desire to give up what they are used to eating. So we have multiple chronic diseases with aging, cognitive decline not least among them.

The Takeaways

  1. If you are used to and really like the taste of ultra processed foods and you get at least 20% of your calories each day from them, the research suggests that you may expect cognitive decline as you age. Ask yourself: is it worth it?
  2. Cutting back is better than doing nothing to change your habits of eating lots of ultra processed foods. Most of us can reduce our consumption of fat, sugar, and salt. Skip a few of these foods every day if you want better, healthier aging.
  3. Be conscious of what you buy at the grocery store. Read food labels. Whole foods, like fruits, vegetables, beans, and fish are a large part of the diets of people who do not suffer cognitive decline in aging at the same rate as those who eat the typical American diet.
  4. You are not helpless to prevent Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. Choosing your foods wisely is preventive, and something over which you have control. You won’t see the results of smarter eating habits immediately but it is clear from many credible sources that the effort is well worth it in the long run.
  5. That old adage, “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” has merit. A simple apple, a whole food, is a great choice, and is a lot better for you than a cereal bar or other quick snack.

In our work at, the most common problem families need help with in creating strategies is dementia. So much of what we see in the decline of aging elders could likely have been prevented with a healthier lifestyle in the person who is affected by this devastating disease. Now is the time to pay attention to your own commitment to the health of your brain before it is too late.

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