Dementia warning: Four foods linked to worsening of thinking skills as you get older

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Dementia – a general term for symptoms associated with brain decline – is set to accelerate over the coming decades as greater numbers of Britons enter old age. Healthcare systems are bracing for a crisis but its impact can still be mitigated. That’s because there are proven ways to modify the risk of dementia.

Ongoing research is illuminating the role diet plays in causing brain decline.

According to Doctor Michelle Luciano of the University of Edinburgh, you should go easy on unsaturated fats if you want to keep your brain in good shape.

Saturated fats, which are usually hard at room temperature, are linked to poor cardiovascular outcomes and what is bad for the heart is invariably bad for the brain.

Singling out some of the worst offenders, such as butter, palm oil, dairy and meat, Doctor Luciana explained how saturated fat can undermine brain health.

Speaking to Age UK, the doc said saturated fat intake has been “linked to worsening of thinking skills in older age”.

What the evidence says

In a study published last year in The American Journal of Human Nutrition, researchers found that individuals with higher levels of saturated fats in their blood are more likely to develop dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease – the most common type.

A team led by Doctor Majken Jensen and Doctor Manja Koch, both of whom are affiliated with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, looked for 45 different types of fat particles that could be circulating in the blood of 1,252 elderly individuals, 498 of whom developed dementia within about five years of their blood draw.

Participants were part of the Gingko Evaluation of Memory Study (GEMS), a clinical trial originally designed to examine the preventive effect of ginkgo biloba on dementia in older adults.

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Using collected blood samples from the trial, these researchers found that people with higher levels of saturated fats in their blood were more likely to experience cognitive losses and develop Alzheimer’s disease than individuals with higher levels of linoleic acid – a polyunsaturated omega-6 fatty acid which is found in many plant oils.

Scientists had already begun to link higher dietary saturated fat intake to higher risk of dementia and cognitive decline, but this study is one of the first to use blood tests in such a large number of people in order to understand the link between diet and later brain health.

In the future, researchers will likely look into the effects of specific fat-related diet interventions on the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Saturated fat UK guidelines

UK health guidelines recommend that:

  • The average man aged 19 to 64 years should eat no more than 30g of saturated fat a day
  • The average woman aged 19 to 64 years should eat no more than 20g of saturated fat a day.

It’s also recommended that people should reduce their overall fat intake and replace saturated fat with some unsaturated fat, including omega-3 fats.

There are practical tips to help you specifically cut down on saturated fat.

According to the NHS, nutrition labels on the front and back of packaging can help you cut down on saturated fat.

“Aim to choose products with green or amber for saturated fat,” advises the health body.

“There can be a big difference in saturated fat content between similar products.”

The NHS also advises choosing the food that’s lower in saturated fat.

“Serving sizes can vary too, so make sure you’re comparing like for like. The easiest way to do this is by looking at the nutritional content per 100g.”

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