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High Sugar Diet & Memory Decline

By Megan Sexton, RND

Which came first: the junk food or the memory decline?  This question is being investigated currently by researchers and has revealed a strong correlation between a diet high in sugar and saturated fat with decreased memory function.  The mounting evidence points to the significant impact a Western pattern diet likely has on the neurocognitive functions of our hippocampus (a small region in the brain).  Our hippocampus is thought to be the control center that regulates motivation, emotion, learning, and memory.  Bottom line: as saturated fat and sugar increase presence in a person’s diet, memory function declines.

The term Western pattern diet has been used interchangeably with the standard American diet and is defined as a high intake of red meat, processed meat, pre-packed foods, fried foods, high-fat dairy, refined grains, high-fructose corn syrup, and high-sugar beverages.  Additionally, as these food-types increase, the amount of whole fruits, vegetables, fish, legumes and whole grains consumed decreases.  Consuming a standard American diet carries other proven complications such as the increased risk for diabetes, heart disease, stroke, constipation, and weight gain.  In other words, the evidence for people of all ages to move away from a standard American diet is very compelling and has been long-standing.  But the rapidly growing evidence for the negative impacts of an American diet on memory function should make older adults prioritize evaluating their personal diet.

When I ask older adults why they depend on pre-packaged foods, fast-foods, and convenience foods for the majority of food choices, several explanations emerge. The decrease in energy and mobility, flavor and texture changes, dental issues, income restraints, and emotional life events (such as moving homes or loss of partner/loved-one) are the most common reasons. While these are valid reasons to seek out ways to ease the burden of food choice, we can’t ignore the probable impact these foods are having on memory decline.

There are several ideas that can be implemented to help consume high-quality foods for older adults.  Sheridan has wonderful resources in Meals-on-Wheels and Designing Dinners that offer homemade meals that can be brought home for reheating.  Grocery discount days, grocery delivery and a variety of grocery price-points all help to alleviate some of the cost burdens. I also encourage older adults to think outside of the box; quality food items don’t have to be combined into a whole meal to be beneficial.  Having nutritious foods that require minimal assembly can make up the bulk of your calorie intake.  Foods such as eggs, packaged tuna or salmon, low-fat cottage cheese, low-fat cheese sticks, low-fat Greek yogurt, hummus, nut butters without added sugar, mixed nuts, microwaveable frozen vegetables, low-sodium canned beans, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, whole-grain bread, microwaveable brown rice, and more.

The social and emotional aspects of mealtimes need to be addressed as well.  Older adults have experienced significant changes to where and with whom they dine, and when these changes happen, the effort of grocery shopping, meal planning, and meal preparation can often be extremely daunting.  My suggestion: don’t force old habits. Instead, attempt to establish new routines, keep nutritious snacks nearby and keep yourself on a schedule that includes sleep, activity, socialization, and eating.  It can be helpful to reach out to various friends/family for reoccurring group meals, attending a community lunch, or rethinking the size and frequency of your in-home meals.

The aging process is difficult for numerous reasons, and to this point, I think we ought to arm ourselves with as much research-based knowledge as possible.  While the research is concerning for the standard American diet and memory decline, it also informs us of some nutrition habits that can directly be addressed.  Use the resources in our community and in your personal life to decrease the saturated fat and sugar you consume, by reducing the amount of pre-packaged foods, fast-foods, and convenience foods.  Your brain will thank you.