Alzheimer's / Dementia

8/10/2022 | By Annie Tobey

The 2022 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference revealed important new Alzheimer’s research on the science behind the disease and its treatments. Research results highlight the effects of ultraprocessed foods, racism, income, Covid, and exercise on memory and cognitive function.

With more than 6 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease today, scientists are pursuing research that will lead to earlier detection, preventions, and new treatments for Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. More than 10,000 participants attended the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference 2022 this summer, in person and virtually, to share the latest in Alzheimer’s and dementia science.

Highlights of new Alzheimer’s research included:

Junk food might be hurting our brains.

Researchers studied more than 10,000 people over eight years and found that high consumption of ultraprocessed foods – more than 20% of your daily calorie intake daily – led to a 28% faster rate of global cognitive decline and a 25% faster rate of executive function decline. This includes convenience foods that are high in sugar, salt, and fat, such as prepackaged soups, frozen pizza, hot dogs, fast foods like burgers and fries, soda, etc.

couple eating junk food. Photo by Simona Pilolla, Dreamstime. New Alzheimer’s research on disease prevention looks at effects of diet, racism, income, Covid and exercise on memory and cognitive function.

“Fifty-eight percent of the calories consumed by United States citizens, 56.8% of the calories consumed by British citizens, and 48% of the calories consumed by Canadians come from ultraprocessed foods,” said Dr. Claudia Suemoto, coauthor of the research study and assistant professor in the division of geriatrics at the University of São Paulo Medical School.

We already knew that ultraprocessed foods could lead to obesity, heart and circulatory issues, diabetes, and cancer. Now we have another reason to eat fresh, healthy foods.

Racist experiences impact cognitive health.

In a study of nearly 1,000 adults, exposure to interpersonal and institutional racism was associated with lower memory scores, especially among Black individuals.

The chronic stress that racial minorities face, through direct racist experiences, marginalization, and microaggressions, results in a long-term deterioration of physical and mental health, known as “weathering.”

Similarly, exposure to racism may be a significant drive of disparities in cognitive health, too. “In a study of 942 community-dwelling adults, mean age 55±11, structural racism was associated with lower episodic memory,” the journal Practical Neurology says about this new Alzheimer’s research. “Experiences of both interpersonal and institutional racism was associated with lower memory scores.”

COVID-19 can have long-term negative impacts on cognition.

New Alzheimer’s research through multiple studies reported connections between Covid-19 and negative impacts on memory and thinking skills. One group found that a persistent loss of smell due to COVID-19 infection may be a better predictor of long-term cognitive and functional impairment than severity of the illness. In older adults, hospitalization in the ICU can double the risk of dementia.

Income may affect dementia risk.

sad woman with little money. Photo by Cam144tas, Dreamstime. New Alzheimer’s research on disease prevention looks at effects of diet, racism, income, Covid and exercise on memory and cognitive function.

Lower income may increase dementia risk: compared with workers earning higher wages, sustained low-wage earners experienced significantly faster memory decline in older age.

Columbia Mailman School of Public Health explains, “Low-wage was defined as hourly wage lower than two-thirds of the federal median wage for the corresponding year. [The report’s authors] categorized study participants’ history of low wages into those who never earned low wages, intermittently earned low wages, or always earned low wages.”

Specifically, sustained lower income earners experienced approximately one excess year of cognitive aging per a 10-year period – i.e., the level of cognitive aging experienced over a 10-year period by sustained low-wage earners would be what those who never had low income experienced in 11 years.

Movement and exercise are beneficial in staving off memory problems.

The Alzheimer’s Association reported on a new study from the University of Wisconsin has found that people over 60 who were at high risk for Alzheimer’s lowered their risk of developing the disease – and had fewer memory and cognitive problems – if they performed 30 minutes of moderate exercise five days a week.

Additional new Alzheimer’s research using long-term studies on exercise and brain function are underway, including what types of exercise work best.

“There is great progress in Alzheimer’s and dementia research,” said Lisa Roberts, executive director for the Alzheimer’s Association Eastern North Carolina Chapter. “This year at AAIC, we heard new ideas about what makes us at risk, as well as a diverse array of treatments and prevention methods for Alzheimer’s disease and all dementia. The work of the scientific community holds great promise for the future worldwide, and in our own backyard here in North Carolina.”

Annie Tobey

Seniors Guide editor Annie Tobey has been involved in publishing for more than three decades, editing magazines, creating hundreds of freelance articles for local and national publications, and publishing two books. Her first book, “For Any Young Mother Who Lives in a Shoe” (Judson Press, 1991), offered humor and guidance to parents of young children. More recently, “100 Things to Do in Richmond Before You Die” (Reedy Press, Sept. 1, 2023) gave Tobey the opportunity to share her love for her hometown of Richmond, Virginia.