Opinion: Your diet isn’t just making you obese, it could be speeding up cognitive decline

Well, it turns out our toxic modern diet of saturated fats, refined carbs, salt and chemicals may be speeding up our cognitive decline in our senior years, and could even bring on dementia.

The good news? It will only affect those it hasn’t already killed through things like obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

The cheering news on processed foods and the brain has been confirmed by one of those heartless tests on a bunch of blameless rats in a lab in Ohio. Some aging rats were fed a healthy diet, some a diet of processed foods. After a month — things happen quickly in rat biology — they were put through some memory tests involving ringing bells and electric shocks through the feet. Then they were, er, euthanized and their brains dissected.

It’s not much fun being a lab rat.

“Consumption of a PD [ie processed foods diet], enriched with refined carbohydrate sources, for 28 days impaired hippocampal- and amygdalar-dependent memory function,” the researchers found. “These memory deficits were accompanied by increased expression of inflammatory genes… in the hippocampus and amygdala of aged rats.”

In layperson’s terms, the rats that had been living on junk food were less likely than those living on healthy food to remember that a ringing bell would be followed by an electric shock, and on dissection their brains were different. And this, after just 28 days of processed foods.

How’s that cheeseburger and frozen pizza taste now?

Critically, this damage seems to be especially strong in aging brains. Eating the total garbage we call food may not be as bad for us in our 20s as it is in our 60s or 70s.

The researchers point out that although they are advancing scientific knowledge in this area, they are not breaking entirely new ground. Their study adds to the growing scientific evidence that junk food is bad for the brain, as well as everything else.

For example one study found that drinking too many sugary sodas, and even too many diet sodas, can lead to dementia. A bad diet can accelerate aging and lead to premature death.
Bad diets may be killing more than 500,000 Americans a year, according to one study, and the rate is through the roof. Obesity has replaced smoking as the top cause of life years lost in the U.S.

The percentage of death certificates mentioning “obesity” has trebled in 20 years. The rate of obesity itself has risen by a third over that period, and today more than two-fifths of Americans rank as obese.

Oh, and it’s a major factor in Covid hospitalization and death too.

The Alzheimer’s and dementia angle is yet more bad news.  About 6 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease, and the Center for Disease Control expects the numbers to triple over the next 40 years. Women face a 37% lifetime risk of developing the brain-destroying disease. For men, who don’t tend to live as long anyway, it’s much lower, at 24%.

Meanwhile about two-thirds of us will develop some form of cognitive impairment by the time we’re 70. Yikes.

But we’re not all doom and gloom at this address. So here’s some more cheerful news. Scientists at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago have developed a diet that is especially designed to slow cognitive decline. They call it the “MIND” diet, which stands for “Mediterranean-DASH diet Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay.” It’s based on all the medical research they could find associating various types of diet and cognitive decline.

It includes the usual suspects: Green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale, nuts, berries, beans and legumes, whole grain, fish, poultry, olive oil… and wine.

Incidentally they found that just one serving of fish per week was enough to help slow cognitive decline. Eating more fish may not have an effect. They also found that most fruits, other than berries, have no impact.

But like most good diets, what it cuts out is probably more important than what it includes. The MIND diet cuts out red meat and meat products, butter and stick margarine, whole fat cheese, pastries, sweets, fast foods and fried foods.

There is more and more evidence that our commercial food supply is poisoning us to death. It’s now costing us more life years than smoking. But I’m not seeing the same level of urgency about this health catastrophe that I see about others. Make of that what you will.