Optimize your brain health through diet


DAYTON — New Year’s resolutions are often forgotten well before January reaches an end, but a recent study examining how to prevent cognitive decline suggests that one lifestyle change is worth holding onto: reducing ultra-processed food intake.

The study results that were announced at the 2022 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference revealed that eating ultra-processed foods accounting for more than 20% of a person’s daily calorie intake could increase the risk of cognitive decline. Decline could include the areas of the brain involved in executive functioning — the ability to process information and make decisions.

“Alzheimer’s research continues to examine ways to protect against cognitive decline, and this new research suggests that, as we head into 2023, making an effort to reduce your consumption of ultra-processed foods is a smart and effective move,” said Dayna Ritchey, program director for the Alzheimer’s Association Miami Valley Chapter.

Men and women participating in the study — which followed participants for up to a decade — those who ate the most ultra-processed foods had a 28% faster rate of global cognitive decline and a 25% faster rate of executive function decline compared with people who ate the least amount of overly processed food.

Ultra-processed foods include prepackaged soups, sauces, frozen pizzas, hot dogs, burgers, sodas, desserts and ready-to-eat meals. Although these types of foods are convenient, they undergo significant industrial processing and often contain large quantities of fats, sugar, salt, artificial flavors or colors, stabilizers and preservatives. Studies have found that ultra-processed foods can raise the risk of obesity, heart and circulation problems, diabetes and cancer, in addition to cognitive decline.

To help reduce cognitive decline caused by these foods, a healthy diet should include fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, lean meats such as fish and poultry, and low- or non-fat dairy. For more tips on adopting a healthy diet, visit alz.org/news/2019/food-for-thought.

Ultra-processed foods currently account for about two-thirds of calories in the diets of children and teens. The prevalence of ultra-processed foods is in part related to socioeconomic factors, including low access to healthy foods, less time to prepare foods from scratch and the inability to afford whole-food options.

“We understand that for many families, a variety of factors make it difficult to emphasize whole foods, fresh produce and made-from-scratch meals,” Ritchey said. “We encourage families and individuals of all ages to seek out feasible changes in lifestyle and diet combined with other tips to protect their brain health as much as possible.”

In addition to eating a balanced diet, other steps to reduce the risk of cognitive decline include: regular exercise, quality sleep, cognitive engagement, protection from head injuries and a heart-healthy lifestyle. Research suggests that these lifestyle modifications in any combination may provide benefits and are good to consider at any age.

In January, the Alzheimer’s Association Miami Valley Chapter will host a free virtual education program, Expert Series: Strategies to Optimize Brain Health with Dr. Sigward, from 6:30-8:30 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 23. The program will be offered via Zoom. For more information or to register, visit bit.ly/brainhealthsigward or call the Alzheimer’s Association’s 24/7 Helpline at 800-272-3900.

The virtual program will feature guest speakers Timothy Sigward, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist with NeuroPsych Center of Greater Cincinnati, and Kristen Sigward, M.S., CCC-SLP, a speech-language pathologist and Healthy Brains Program Director for NeuroPsych Center. They will discuss research in the areas of diet and nutrition, exercise, cognitive activity and social engagement and offer hands-on tools to help participants incorporate these recommendations into a plan for healthy living.

The Association offers a similar free education program, Healthy Living for Your Brain and Body: Tips from the Latest Research, in various locations throughout the year. To find upcoming programs, visit alz.org/crf and search by zip code.

“It’s never too early or too late to start paying more attention to the health of your brain and body,” Ritchey said. “This program offers actionable tips based on the latest research and is a great resource for those wanting to maximize the health of both their brain and body.”

Those concerned about themselves or a loved one can contact the Alzheimer’s Association Miami Valley Chapter office at 937-291-3332 to schedule a care consultation with a social worker who can offer connections to local resources that can help. The Alzheimer’s Association’s Helpline can be reached 24/7 at 800-272-3900.