With aging, many fear the onset of memory loss, which can eventually progress into more serious conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. While it is understood that diet can directly impact your waistline, new data suggests that a certain type of popular food may also impact your risk of developing cognitive issues later in life. Read on to learn what daily snack choice may prompt signs of memory loss.
Eating highly processed foods can impact memory.
Investigators at the Ohio State University recently published a study in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, evaluating groups of older and younger rats that were fed highly processed food—as rats are so genetically similar to humans and have similar behavioral characteristics, they are often used in medical research. When sticking to this “junk food” diet of chips, frozen entrees, and deli meats for just one month, older rats showed signs of memory loss, failing behavioral tests by forgetting places they had been, and not showing fear when shown danger cues. Interestingly, this was not observed in the younger rats.
This problem is tied to the amygdala and the hippocampus area of the brain.
These issues are tied to the amygdala, the part of the brain that regulates emotion, and the hippocampus, the part involved in learning and memory. Unlike younger rats, older rats eating the same highly processed diet had inflammatory responses in both of these brain regions.
“The amygdala in humans has been implicated in memories associated with emotional—fear and anxiety-producing—events. If this region of the brain is dysfunctional, cues that predict danger may be missed and could lead to bad decisions,” Ruth M. Barrientos, PhD, the study’s senior author, an investigator for the Ohio State University Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research and associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral health, said in a statement.
“The fact we’re seeing these effects so quickly is a little bit alarming,” she added, highlighting the importance of study findings for older adults, where memory decline is more likely to progress into neurodegenerative diseases and Alzheimer’s disease, specifically.
The omega-3 fatty acid DHA has been shown to “fend off” this inflammatory response in the brain.
You might feel the need to immediately purge your pantry of cookies and potato chips and restock your fridge with fruits and veggies over microwavable meals, but further findings may restore some faith. In addition to a the control group, which were fed their normal diet of protein, wheat-based complex carbs, and fat, investigators also evaluated a group of rats that were fed a processed diet supplemented with foods rich in omega-3 fatty acid DHA, or docosahexaenoic acid.
DHA is found in fish such as salmon and tuna, and it has been shown to protect against this inflammatory response in the brain. In the study, for example, older rats that had DHA supplementation of their processed-food diets did not have the same elevated inflammatory response or memory loss as those without supplementation.
Research has shown people who eat diets that include seafood have lower risk of chronic diseases, but scientists continue to study how taking in these fatty acids affects overall health. According to Barrientos, limiting the consumption of processed foods and swapping them for more of these DHA-rich options may be helpful in slowing, or even stopping, progression to serious disease. However, she also added a note of caution about balancing out those frozen pizzas and sugary cereals by simply adding in more fish or a DHA supplement.
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Rather than supplementing a processed-food diet with DHA, experts recommend striking a balance.
While there were positive results observed between inflammatory response and DHA, researchers were unsure of the exact dosage of DHA. The supplementation also had no preventative effect on weight gain in those primarily eating processed foods. In fact, all rats on the processed-food diet gained weight, whether they were supplemented or not. And as another unfortunate consequence of aging, this was was more pronounced in older rats than younger rats.
Not all processed foods are bad, however—milk needs to be processed to remove bacteria and make it safe to consume, and seeds are processed to make oil. According to the National Institutes of Health, you run into trouble when processed foods have excess levels of sugar, salt, and fat added for flavor or to extend their shelf life. These products may even have a label claiming health benefits, using words like “lite” or “low fat,” but hidden additives and carbohydrates can be detrimental. “These are the types of diets that are advertised as being low in fat, but they’re highly processed. They have no fiber and have refined carbohydrates that are also known as low-quality carbohydrates,” Barrientos said. “Folks who are used to looking at nutritional information need to pay attention to the fiber and quality of carbohydrates. This study really shows those things are important.”