Diets Heavy in ‘Ultra-Processed’ Foods Could Harm the Brain

Steven Reinberg wrote . . . . . . . . .

Eating lots of ultra-processed foods may dramatically increase your risk for dementia, according to a new study by researchers in China.

Ultra-processed foods are high in sugar, fat and salt, but low in protein and fiber. Sodas, salty and sugary snacks and desserts, ice cream, sausage, deep-fried chicken, flavored yogurt, ketchup, mayonnaise, packaged bread and flavored cereals are all examples.

Replacing these foods with healthier alternatives may lower the odds for dementia by 19%, the study found.

“These results mean that it is important to inform consumers about these associations, implement actions targeting product reformulation, and communicate to limit the proportion of ultra-processed foods in the diet and [instead] promote the consumption of unprocessed or minimally processed foods like fresh vegetables and fruits instead,” said lead researcher Huiping Li, from the School of Public Health at Tianjin Medical University.

This study doesn’t prove that eating ultra-processed foods increases the risk of dementia, only that there seems to be a link.

Dr. Sam Gandy, director of the Mount Sinai Center for Cognitive Health in New York City, reviewed the findings.

“This is consistent with the growing body of evidence indicating that a heart-healthy diet and lifestyle is the best way for everyone to modulate their risk for dementia,” Gandy said. “The main novelty here is the focus on the risks of ultra-processed foods rather than on the benefits of heart-healthy foods.”

For the study, Li’s team collected data on more than 72,000 people listed in the UK Biobank, a large database of health information of people in the United Kingdom. At the outset, participants were age 55 and older and none had dementia. Over an average 10 years, 518 people developed dementia.

Researchers compared 18,000 people whose diets included little processed food with a like number who ate a lot of it.

Among participants who ate the least amount of processed foods (about 8 ounces a day), 100 developed dementia, compared to 150 of those who ate the most (about 28-29 ounces a day). The study considered one serving size of pizza or fish sticks to be just over 5 ounces.

Drinks, sugary products and ultra-processed dairy were the main contributors to ultra-processed food intake.

Li’s group estimated that substituting 10% of ultra-processed foods with unprocessed or minimally processed foods such as fresh fruit, vegetables, legumes, milk and meat, could lower dementia (but not Alzheimer’s) risk by 19%.

Li said easy changes in food choices can make a big difference.

“The small and manageable dietary changes, such as increasing the amount of unprocessed or minimally processed foods by only 2 ounces a day [about half an apple, a serving of corn, or a bowl of bran cereal], and simultaneously decreasing ultra-processed foods intake by 2 ounces a day [about a chocolate bar or a serving of bacon], may be associated with 3% decreased risk of dementia,” Li said.

Samantha Heller, a senior clinical nutritionist at NYU Langone Health in New York City, said it’s long been known that ultra-processed foods increase the odds of developing several chronic conditions. They include heart disease, certain cancers, type 2 diabetes and obesity.

“While the exact cause is unknown, it is not surprising that this type of dietary pattern is associated with an increased risk of dementia,” she said. “Ultra-processed foods are both biochemically designed and advertised to increase cravings and desire for these foods, and in many households crowd out healthier options such as fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains.”

The poor nutrient quality of ultra-processed foods — which are high in salt, sugar and saturated fat, and low in fiber — is a recipe for poor health both physically and mentally, Heller said.

“Dodging dementia is another great reason to start incorporating more plant foods, less ultra-processed foods and animal foods, into our diets,” she said.

Switches can be as easy as replacing sugary cereal with a whole-grain cereal like shredded wheat or oatmeal, or topping pizza with salad or mushrooms and spinach, instead of pepperoni and sausage, Heller said.

Or, she suggested, try falafel in a whole wheat pita with chopped tomatoes and cucumbers instead of a ham sandwich, or lentil soup and a side salad instead of a cheeseburger.

“Every meal is an opportunity to make a healthy choice,” Heller said.

Keeping the kitchen stocked with healthy foods, like canned or dried beans, whole grains like quinoa or brown rice, peanut or almond butter, trail mix and frozen vegetables, makes it easier to throw together meals that are rich in fiber and nutrients, she said.

“Learning new ways of food prep and meal ideas might feel daunting at first but there are lots of free recipes and resources online to turn to for guidance,” Heller said. “Anecdotally, I have found that with my patients, once they start eating less ultra-processed foods and more fresh foods, the cravings and taste for the ultra-processed foods decreases, sometimes to the point where that bacon, egg and cheese breakfast sandwich doesn’t even taste good anymore.”

The findings were published online in the journal Neurology.

In a companion editorial, Boston University researchers Maura Walker and Nicole Spartano questioned the study’s definition of ultra-processed foods. They pointed out that preparation methods can affect the nutritional value of foods, and said that further study that is not dependent on participants’ self-reported eating habits would be beneficial.

“As we aim to understand better the complexities of dietary intake [processing, timing, mixed meals] we must also consider that investments in more high-quality dietary assessment may be required,” they wrote.

Source: HealthDay





Exercise, Puzzles, Games: They Help Men’s, Women’s Brains Differently

Denise Mann wrote . . . . . . . . .

Exercising your body and mind can help stave off memory problems as you age, and some of these benefits may be even greater for women, a new study suggests.

The study looked at cognitive reserve, or the brain’s ability to withstand the effects of diseases like Alzheimer’s without showing a decline in thinking or memory skills.

Women, but not men, had greater cognitive reserves if they exercised regularly and took classes, read or played games. Taking part in more mental activities improved thinking speed for both women and men.

“Begin building that cognitive reserve now, so the money is in the bank for down the road if our brains need it,” said study author Judy Pa. She is the co-director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Cooperative Study and a professor of neurosciences at the University of California, San Diego.

“It is never too early or too late to engage in physically and mentally stimulating activities, and it is a good idea to try new activities to continue challenging the brain, mind and body to learn and adapt,” Pa said.

The study included 758 people (average age, 76). Some participants showed no evidence of thinking or memory problems, others had mild cognitive impairment, and some had full-blown dementia when the study began.

The participants underwent brain scans and took thinking speed and memory tests. The researchers compared scores on these tests to brain changes associated with dementia to calculate a cognitive reserve score.

Women who reported more physical activity had a greater thinking speed reserve, but this wasn’t seen in men. Greater physical activity wasn’t linked to improved memory reserve in men or women. Women who read, took classes and played cards or games more frequently also showed a greater memory reserve.

The study wasn’t designed to say how, or even if, these activities improved brain function, just that there is a connection.

Exactly why women seemed to accrue more benefits from these activities than men isn’t fully understood yet, Pa said.

“There is still more work to be done in this area to better understand the differences observed in women and men, which could be related to the types of physical and mental activities undertaken by each sex/gender group,” she said. For example, women reported more group-based classes than men.

The researchers also looked at how the APOE4 gene, which increases the risk for Alzheimer’s disease, affected the results and found this gene dampened the added benefits of physical and mental activities on cognitive reserve in women.

The study did have some limitations. People were asked to report their own physical and mental activity and may not have recalled them accurately.

The research was published online in the journal Neurology.

It is too early to draw any firm conclusions on how mental and physical activities affect brain health in men or women, according to experts who were not involved with the study.

“It appears that the impact of self-reported physical and cognitive activities on cognitive reserve was more pronounced in women,” said Dr. Howard Fillit. He is the co-founder and chief science officer of the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation in New York City. “These are just associations, and more research is needed to confirm the findings.”

What’s more, the researchers didn’t control for factors that could have affected the results, including participant’s education levels, Fillit said.

There are things to do to protect and foster your cognitive reserve now, he said. “Exercise regularly, eat a healthy Mediterranean-style diet, get good sleep, avoid stress, alcohol and smoking, and manage your diabetes and high blood pressure,” Fillit advised. “The age of prevention is upon us, and we can delay the onset of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s or slow it down with these prevention methods.”

There is also a role for testing for the APOE4 gene in some people, he noted.

Such tests are readily available. “It’s the job of the physician to inform, educate and determine the patient’s attitude toward knowing their risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease, including genetic risk factors,” Fillit said.

Not all APOE4 carriers will develop Alzheimer’s, he pointed out. “Prevention measures may be even more important in people who have this gene,” Fillit added.

Dr. Thomas Vidic is a clinical professor of neurology at Indiana University and a fellow of the American Academy of Neurology. “This paper suggests that the effects of physical and mental activity for preventing cognitive decline or functioning better with Alzheimer’s is stronger in women than men,” but this doesn’t mean men shouldn’t participate in these enriching activities, he said.

“We are still learning how to measure cognitive reserve and don’t know how much is significant or how much we need to get to the next level,” Vidic said. It’s possible that different measures of cognitive reserve may better reflect the benefits of these activities in men, he added.

Source: HealthDay





Moderate Drinking Linked to Brain Changes and Cognitive Decline

Consumption of seven or more units of alcohol per week is associated with higher iron levels in the brain, according to a study of almost 21,000 people publishing in the open access journal PLOS Medicine. Iron accumulation in the brain has been linked with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases and is a potential mechanism for alcohol-related cognitive decline.

There is growing evidence that even moderate alcohol consumption can adversely impact brain health. Anya Topiwala of the University of Oxford, United Kingdom, and colleagues explored relationships between alcohol consumption and brain iron levels. Their 20,965 participants from the UK Biobank reported their own alcohol consumption, and their brains were scanned using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Almost 7,000 also had their livers imaged using MRI to assess levels of systemic iron. All individuals completed a series of simple tests to assess cognitive and motor function.

Participants’ mean age was 55 years old and 48.6% were female. Although 2.7% classed themselves as non-drinkers, average intake was around 18 units per week, which translates to about 7½ cans of beer or 6 large glasses of wine. The team found that alcohol consumption above seven units per week was associated with markers of higher iron in the basal ganglia, a group of brain regions associated with control of motor movements, procedural learning, eye movement, cognition, emotion and more. Iron accumulation in some brain regions was associated with worse cognitive function.

This is the largest study to date of moderate alcohol consumption and iron accumulation. Although drinking was self-reported and could be underestimated, this was considered the only feasible method to establish such a large cohort’s intake. A limitation of the work is that MRI-derived measures are indirect representations of brain iron, and could conflate other brain changes observed with alcohol consumption with changes in iron levels.

Given the prevalence of moderate drinking, even small associations can have substantial impact across whole populations, and there could be benefits in interventions to reduce consumption in the general population.

Topiwala adds, “In the largest study to date, we found drinking greater than 7 units of alcohol weekly associated with iron accumulation in the brain. Higher brain iron in turn linked to poorer cognitive performance. Iron accumulation could underlie alcohol-related cognitive decline.”

Source: Science Daily





9 Ways to Protect Your Heart and Brain from the Summer Heat

Michael Merschel wrote . . . . . . . . .

Your favorite summertime playlist probably has more songs about surfing than about potential health risks. But with much of the nation having already sweated out a historic heat wave in June, health experts would like to add a note of caution to the mix.

Hot weather is like a stress test for your heart, said Dr. Lance Becker, chair of emergency medicine at Northwell Health, a health care provider in New York. And some people respond poorly to such stress. “They could have a heart attack. Their congestive heart failure symptoms could get much worse. Or they could have an arrhythmia,” the medical term for an irregular heartbeat.

The risk to your heart and brain can be serious.

A 2020 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited research showing that hospital admissions for cardiovascular problems jumped in the days after temperatures spiked. And a 2017 review of research in the American Heart Association journal Stroke concluded that hot temperatures seem to increase the immediate risk of having a clot-caused ischemic stroke, the most common type of stroke.

Heat regulation in humans is all about blood flow. A healthy body sheds heat by pushing blood to the skin. We also sweat, and as sweat evaporates, it carries more heat away.

It’s usually a “pretty darn good mechanism,” Becker said. But excessive heat can overwhelm it. And then things can become “very, very dangerous.”

Dr. Rachel M. Bond, director of women’s heart health at Dignity Health in Arizona, said anyone with a history of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke or obesity is at higher risk for heat-related problems. Similarly, the CDC warns that people with diabetes may have damage to blood vessels and nerves that can affect their ability to cool off.

What can you do to stay safe?

Know these symptoms. Signs of heat exhaustion include headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea and cool, moist skin. It can be treated by moving out of the heat or using a damp cloth to cool off. If symptoms don’t improve within an hour, seek medical attention.

Heat stroke is more severe. Symptoms include a rapid, strong pulse; body temperature above 103 F; and red, hot, dry skin. “That is actually a medical emergency,” Bond said, and people should call 911.

Drink lots of water. Hydration helps the heart pump more easily and helps the muscles work more efficiently, Bond said. The exact amount of fluids you need can vary. Bond typically encourages her patients to drink at least 64 ounces a day, unless they have cardiovascular conditions that would limit them.

But not alcohol. Avoid it, Bond said. It can dehydrate you.

Keep cool. If you don’t have air conditioning, or can’t get to a place that does, Becker suggests getting a fan and a spray bottle or damp cloth.

“The combination of sitting directly in front of a fan and then either spraying a little water on your body or taking a cold wash rag and putting water on your body and evaporating that water off of your skin will help cool you down,” he said. “That is actually one of the things we do to people in the emergency department.”

Monitor medications. Because of the extra strain on their systems, heart patients need to be diligent about keeping up with prescriptions.

Some situations might require a doctor’s help. People with high blood pressure or heart failure might use diuretics to help rid the body of excess fluid. But they also might need to increase their fluid intake to cope with the heat. It’s a confusing situation, Becker said. “Because of that, we generally recommend that those people simply avoid heat stress, because it is very difficult to manage that properly.”

Watch what you eat. If you grew up enjoying summertime staples such as watermelon or cucumbers, go right ahead, Bond said; they’re full of water.

But you may want to avoid heavy meals, Becker said. When your body is straining to push blood to the skin, that’s not the best time to eat a big meal that’s going to demand more blood go to your digestive system.

Watch the clock – and your clothes. In the triple-digit desert heat of Phoenix, Bond and other physicians routinely remind people to avoid going outdoors in the early afternoon and encourage people to wear loose, lightweight, light-colored clothing.

Exercise, but be smart about it. Even in the heat, exercise is important for long-term health. But if you have the option, move your workout indoors – or take up swimming.

Parents and coaches can encourage youth sports but need to be aware of the risks. “Unfortunately, we do lose young people this time of year,” Bond said. The CDC provides heat-related guidance for athletes.

Take care of one another. “This is really the time for community spirit,” Becker said. Social isolation is a root cause in many of the heat deaths he sees.

He suggests checking on at-risk neighbors, friends and relatives. Say, “It’s going to be really hot. Can I help you out?” Invite them to share time in an air-conditioned space. “Because this is truly a time where that kind of spirit can save people’s lives.”

Source: American Heart Association


Learn About Confabulation, Also Known as “Honest Lying”

Susan Fitzgerald wrote . . . . . . . . .

In detailed and vivid language, a middle-aged woman talked about her plans for the day and how she had arranged the rooms in the house where she was staying. She explained that in the morning she had awakened, packed her suitcase, and said goodbye. She was off to look after her little boy, who needed to be fed.

The woman’s account, while seemingly ordinary, was extraordinary to the researchers who wrote about it in the journal Brain in 1996. Nothing the 58-year-old woman said was true. The house was a hospital, and her hungry little boy was a grown man. As the scientists noted, this story was a case of confabulation, an unusual neurologic phenomenon in which people talk, often with great flourishes, about events or experiences in their lives—unaware that their stories are false.

“Confabulation is an intriguing disorder of memory and thought. Patients tell stories about their recent doings and plans for the future that are blatantly incompatible with reality,” says Armin Schnider, MD, professor of neurorehabilitation at the University of Geneva in Switzerland, who wrote about the woman in various medical journals and is considered a leading authority on the disorder.

“In contrast to lying, confabulation is not intentional and, in many cases, not even consciously perceived by the confabulator,” says Dr. Schnider. Because there is no intent to deceive and nothing to be gained, confabulation is sometimes referred to as “honest lying” by researchers.

Confabulation usually happens after a brain injury, whether from trauma, a stroke, or a tumor. The woman described by Dr. Schnider had bleeding in her brain from a ruptured aneurysm. In another case referenced in the same article, a 45-year-old man sustained a head injury in a motorcycle accident. After regaining consciousness and being transferred to a rehabilitation ward, the charming and chatty man told stories, some true, others imaginary, according to his relatives.

The man occasionally acted on his confabulations. One time he went to a physician’s office in the ward and asked if he could use the telephone to arrange a deer hunt for that afternoon with his friends. Another time he told a physician he was worried that he might not get leave from his military duties the next day.

Scrambling Reality

Frequently confabulations contain shreds of truth, with some details perhaps drawn from a snippet of conversation, a photograph, or a television show. The woman wanting to feed her little boy, for instance, did have children, but they were all adults. In other cases, a confabulation may touch on a pastime or habit from a person’s life preceding the brain injury or relate in some way to a sad or even happy event from the past.

“Most confabulations become obvious in a discussion about recent doings or plans for the day,” says Dr. Schnider, author of The Confabulating Mind: How the Brain Creates Reality (Oxford University Press, 2018). “They reflect a confusion of current reality,” he says. “Subjects perceive themselves in another time, place, and situation—often related to their near or distant past—and act according to this feeling.”

The term was likely introduced into medical literature in the early 1900s by Carl Wernicke, a German physician who characterized it as “the emergence of memories of events and experiences that never happened.” The exact mechanisms of confabulation may vary from one case to another, but usually it’s due to damage or dysfunction of the front part of the brain, says Dr. Schnider. There’s a preconscious mechanism in this part of the brain that Dr. Schnider calls the orbitofrontal reality filter, which flags thoughts and memories that don’t correlate with reality. “Severe confabulations also may occur in conjunction with delirium, advanced dementia, or uncontrolled psychosis where brain damage is less local.”

Even healthy people experience some degree of faulty memory at one time or another. It may involve a favorite story from childhood or college days that as it is told and retold over time has some details mixed up. Such instances “reflect normal alterations of memory traces over time, which are particularly likely to occur when the memory of an event is weak and the false information is plausible,” says Dr. Schnider.

Some people also embellish. They recount a real event or experience but exaggerate a bit, adding details that didn’t quite happen as told.

Confabulation differs from delusional thinking, which typically is part of a psychiatric disorder, such as schizophrenia, and involves an unshakable belief in something that has no basis in reality.

“Normally we think of our memory as a repository of things that have happened,” says Sara Manning Peskin, MD, assistant professor of clinical neurology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. When memory loss stems from a brain injury or disease, she says, a person may unknowingly “fill in gaps in their memory with new memories that never really happened.

“You create a prior reality,” says Dr. Manning Peskin, who writes about confabulation in her new book, A Molecule Away from Madness: Tales of the Hijacked Brain (W.W. Norton & Company, 2022).

Though confabulation is not intentional, it may have the effect of boosting a person’s sense of worth or helping a person make sense of a confusing situation.

Vitamin Deficiency

In her book, Dr. Manning Peskin chronicles a case of confabulation brought on by severe alcoholism, a condition known as Korsakoff’s syndrome. Excessive drinking and poor nutrition can cause a deficiency in thiamine, a B vitamin, which can lead to brain damage. Dr. Manning Peskin describes Lisa Park, a woman with alcohol use disorder who spun fantastical stories. A picture of a celebrity, for instance, triggered a detailed but untrue tale of Park’s brush with fame. Her confabulation eased after she received high doses of thiamine intravenously.

Confabulation is not easy to spot. The tales are often told with such sincerity that “you might assume the person’s word was fact,” Dr. Manning Peskin says.

Another group prone to confabulation is children with fetal alcohol syndrome disorder, says Jerrod Brown, PhD, assistant professor at Concordia University in St Paul, MN. A variety of factors, including social, emotional, and intellectual immaturity and poor impulse control, contributes to the problem, he says. It may be difficult for parents to sort out truth from falsehood, leading to arguments and mistrust of their children. “It can get in the way of family relationships,” says Dr. Brown, who has done podcasts on the subject. He says superficial chattiness or excessive storytelling may be signs of a problem.

Possible Treatments

Confabulation generally falls into two subtypes, provoked and spontaneous, says Dr. Brown, who co-authored a review article on the condition in 2017 in the International Journal of Neurology and Neurotherapy. Provoked instances are usually in response to a question the person feels compelled to answer (“What did you do last night?”). Spontaneous ones are when the person volunteers false information unprompted (“Last night I went to…”).

Confabulation may seem relatively harmless, but it can be stressful and hurtful for family members and caregivers, who may equate it with lying or find it tedious and embarrassing. People who engage in confabulation also may be vulnerable to manipulation, Dr. Brown says, which could have legal repercussions if they make false statements or confessions to police or in court.

Because there are many causes of confabulation, there is no one general treatment. The phenomenon may fade as the underlying condition is resolved, Dr. Schnider says. Keeping “memory” diaries to record real events may be useful for recalling what actually happened yesterday or a while ago. Occasionally medications such as antipsychotics may be helpful, he says.

Questionnaires can be used to evaluate patients with memory problems, says Dr. Schnider. “They do not, however, replace observing the behavior of patients to see if how they behave agrees with what they are saying,” he adds. Because doctors may not always be able to sort out what’s true from what isn’t when evaluating a new patient, family members can play an important role in helping verify information.

Otherwise, it isn’t necessary to correct a confabulation as long as the person is in a safe environment and the false memories can’t lead to dangerous behavior, Dr. Schnider says.

“The study of confabulation has led to ways to explore how the brain distinguishes between thoughts that refer to current reality and thoughts that do not, such as fantasies and daydreams,” says Dr. Schnider. Understanding more about the disorder, he says, will help reveal “how we sense reality.”

Source: Brain&Life