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Ultra processed foods have gained a great deal of attention presently in terms of their connection with long term health outcomes. Dementia, a worldwide health crisis, with someone developing the condition every three seconds and to date no known cure, has recently been investigated with relation to whether ultra processed foods may be associated with dementia (Alzheimer’s Disease International, 2022; Goncalves et al., 2022) . In December 2022, a cohort study was published in JAMA which included 10,775 Brazilian individuals. The diets of these individuals were analysed using data from food frequency questionnaires. Cognitive performance was gauged from a variety of tests, including immediate and delayed word recall, word recognition, phonemic and semantic verbal fluency tests, and Trail-Making Test B version. Daily consumption of ultra processed foods was then garnered from a percentage of total energy divided into quartiles. Results indicated that consuming a higher amount of ultra processed foods was associated with cognitive decline. A UK study published in the summer of 2022 further reported a correlation between ultra processed food consumption and dementia. In this prospective cohort study including 72,083 participants who were all over the age of 55. Results indicated that higher consumption of ultra processed foods with increased risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease (Li et al., 2022) .

Mechanisms through which ultra processed foods may be involved in the development of cognitive decline remain to be fully elucidated. However, research to date has suggested that imbalances in the composition of bacteria within the gut microbiome may be a key consideration (Martinez & Segura Campos, 2020). Conversely, in countries where there is a higher consumption of fibre, which helps to increase presence of beneficial strains of gut bacteria within the gut microbiome, and is characteristic of diets such as the Mediterranean diet, a lower incidence of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease has been observed (van de Rest et al., 2015).   Moreover, a further study  has indicated that just 1 serving per day of green leafy vegetables, and other plants that are rich in fibre, as well as phylloquinone, lutein, folate, α-tocopherol, and kaempferol were also associated with reduced risk of cognitive decline (Morris et al., 2018). However, these types of foods have been indicated to not be prevalent in British diets, as a third of children consume less than 1 portion of vegetables per day. Further, a fifth of children’s calories in the UK have been demonstrated to come from ultra processed foods. Adults in the UK also consume 77% less than the recommended 5 a day (Food Foundation, 2021). Overall in the UK, ultra processed foods have been shown to account for over a half of all total calories and nearly three quarters of daily consumption of free sugars (Rauber et al., 2019). 

Recent research has suggested that limiting ultra processed foods may be a strategy that could be adopted to reduce the risk of cognitive decline, although this requires further research to substantiate (Goncalves et al., 2022). As children and adolescents are currently the demographic in the UK who are consuming the highest amounts of ultra processed foods, there are also questions to be asked as to whether this generation will be at higher risk of developing dementia, particularly of increased susceptibility to developing the disease earlier than their predecessors due to the increased prevalence of these foods (Rauber et al., 2019). With statistics projecting that cases of dementia will continue to increase at an exponential rate, doubling every twenty years, and estimated to reach 78 million in 2030 and 139 million in 2050, further investigation into the role of ultra processed foods in dementia risk, as well as preventative nutrition and lifestyle interventions, are merited (Alzheimer’s Disease International, 2022). Particularly, early life interventions with the view of sustainable, preventative interventions, with the view of not only preventing cognitive decline in later life, but rather promoting cognitive resilience from the beginning earliest stages of life, should also be considered and inform the forefront of future research and public health focus in this area.  

References

Alzheimer’s Disease International, 2022. Dementia Statistics. Available at: https://www.alzint.org/about/dementia-facts-figures/dementia-statistics/

Food Foundation, 2021. Peas Please Veg Facts. Available at: https://foodfoundation.org.uk/sites/default/files/2021-09/Peas-Please-Veg-Facts-2021-Mobile-Friendly.pdf

Gomes Gonçalves, N., Vidal Ferreira, N., Khandpur, N., Martinez Steele, E., Bertazzi Levy, R., Andrade Lotufo, P., Bensenor, I. M., Caramelli, P., Alvim de Matos, S. M., Marchioni, D. M., & Suemoto, C. K. (2022). Association Between Consumption of Ultraprocessed Foods and Cognitive Decline. JAMA neurology, 10.1001/jamaneurol.2022.4397. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamaneurol.2022.4397

Li, H., Li, S., Yang, H., Zhang, Y., Zhang, S., Ma, Y., Hou, Y., Zhang, X., Niu, K., Borne, Y., & Wang, Y. (2022). Association of Ultraprocessed Food Consumption With Risk of Dementia: A Prospective Cohort. Neurology, 10.1212/WNL.0000000000200871. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1212/WNL.0000000000200871

Martínez Leo, E. E., & Segura Campos, M. R. (2020). Effect of ultra-processed diet on gut microbiota and thus its role in neurodegenerative diseases. Nutrition (Burbank, Los Angeles County, Calif.)71, 110609. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nut.2019.110609

Morris, M. C., Wang, Y., Barnes, L. L., Bennett, D. A., Dawson-Hughes, B., & Booth, S. L. (2018). Nutrients and bioactives in green leafy vegetables and cognitive decline: Prospective study. Neurology90(3), e214–e222. https://doi.org/10.1212/WNL.0000000000004815

Rauber, F., Louzada, M. L. D. C., Martinez Steele, E., Rezende, L. F. M., Millett, C., Monteiro, C. A., & Levy, R. B. (2019). Ultra-processed foods and excessive free sugar intake in the UK: a nationally representative cross-sectional study. BMJ open9(10), e027546. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2018-027546

van de Rest, O., Berendsen, A. A., Haveman-Nies, A., & de Groot, L. C. (2015). Dietary patterns, cognitive decline, and dementia: a systematic review. Advances in nutrition (Bethesda, Md.)6(2), 154–168. https://doi.org/10.3945/an.114.007617