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New Research Shows How Certain Foods Can Increase Your Dementia Risk

March 21, 2023

At this point, we’ve heard quite a bit of research regarding poor diet and how it can increase your risk of dementia risk. Foods that are fried or highly processed can have a negative effect on brain health, and researchers have made the link between chronic inflammation in the body and increased disease risk. While some research does exist connecting high-inflammatory foods and cognitive impairement, a recent study actually shows us the specific link to how high-inflammatory foods can cause an increased risk of dementia.

The study, recently published in Molecular Psychiatry and shared exclusively with the Clean Plates team, not only made the link between high-inflammatory foods and decreased brain health, but also pinpointed the specific proteins that make that connection in the body. Thanks to researchers at the National Institute of Aging (NIA), using the Olink Inflammation and Immune Response panel on plasma samples from a subset of Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study (WHIMS) participants, researchers were able to determine the specific proteins affected by high-inflammatory foods, especially the ones that are linked to dementia risk.

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How inflammatory foods increases dementia risk

To collect the data, researchers gathered a blood sample of participants after a two or four-week period to evaluate their inflammation score. While certain foods were not pinpointed within this study, this score was able to determine if the study participants consumed an inflammatory diet based on the proteins in their blood.

“We were able to look at about 150 immune-related proteins,” says Keenan Walker, PhD, one of the NIA researchers from the study. “People with a higher inflammatory diet score based on the reported nutritional food intake tended to have higher levels of about 55 different inflammatory proteins in the blood.”

These scores initially told the researchers that a diet high in inflammatory foods can influence inflammatory proteins in the blood, but Dr. Walker and others wanted to take it further. Does this also mean diet can affect brain health and dementia risk, and if so, can the proteins linked to that risk be determined with this test?

“These proteins that are associated with diets, some of them are related to future dementia risk or future risk of cognitive impairment,” says Dr. Walker.

So, after a 15-year follow-up, they took samples and came across surprising results that could lead to breakthroughs in future dementia research and treatment.

“We’re the first to actually look at what proteins in the blood may actually be connected to diet and increase dementia risk,” says Dr. Walker. “Now that we have seven or some proteins nominated, if there are interventions or proteins we want to monitor in the blood for people who may be at risk, that could be done — along with a healthier diet and lifestyle factors.”

Related: 9 Choline-Rich Foods To Protect Your Brain, Says Science

How this research could change future dementia treatment

Because Dr. Walker and researchers from the NIA have been able to nominate around five to seven different proteins with varying levels of evidence that connect an inflammatory diet and cognitive impairment, further research can take place regarding treatment.

“I think what we and others can do is hone in on those potential proteins as potential drivers or molecular risk factors of future risk of dementia or cognitive impairment,” says Dr. Walker.

Dr. Walker does point out that obviously changing your diet is important for decreased risk, especially for preventing other diseases like cardiovascular. He says eating a healthy diet and living a healthy lifestyle for the brain isn’t something new—plenty of research is out there explaining the benefits of eating good brain food and moving the body.

But unfortunately, not everyone will change their lifestyle, which is why this type of research could be revolutionary for dementia treatment.

“Another option could potentially be pharmacological intervention on some of these inflammatory proteins,” he says. “If we think this protein is actually bad for the brain, let’s see what happens when we down-regulate it.”

What does this mean for me?

First and foremost, Dr. Walker’s research shows us initially that a diet high in inflammatory foods can increase dementia risk. While the research identifies certain proteins that link the two, more research and trials need to take place before any type of treatment can be determined. Which is why Dr. Walker still encourages you to eat a healthy diet and take care of your body for the long term.

“There are lots of reasons to watch the diet and to try to eat healthily; the brain is just one of them,” says Dr. Walker. “Maintaining this healthy lifestyle will not only help the brain, but could also help those other organ systems like the heart.”

Yes, life is all about balance — like choosing french fries instead of a salad this time around. But it’s important to try and reduce the number of inflammatory foods in the diet, given the numerous ways they have been connected to not only dementia risk, but other chronic diseases as well.

Read next: The Best 5 Anti-Inflammatory Drinks, According to Dietitians

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