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How highly processed foods cause havoc on the aging brain's ability to retain information

According to the findings of a new study, four weeks of eating a diet high in processed foods induced a significant inflammatory response in the brains of aging rats, which was accompanied by behavioral indicators of memory loss.

The researchers also discovered that supplementing the processed diet with the omega-3 fatty acid DHA prevented memory problems in older rats as well as significantly reduced the inflammatory effects of the diet.

Neuroinflammation or cognitive impairment were not observed in young adult rats fed a processed diet, according to the findings.

Foods commonly packaged for extended shelf life, such as potato chips and other snacks, frozen entrees such as pasta dishes and pizzas, and preservative-laden deli meats were used in the development of the experimental diet.

Highly processed diets are also associated with obesity and type 2 diabetes, suggesting that older consumers may want to reduce their reliance on convenience foods and increase their consumption of foods high in DHA, such as salmon, according to the researchers – especially given the damage to the aged brain was evident after only four weeks of experimentation in the lab.

According to senior study author Ruth Barrientos, a researcher at The Ohio State University Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research and an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral health, "the fact that we're seeing these effects so quickly is somewhat alarming."

"Following these findings, it can be concluded that a processed diet can cause significant and abrupt memory deficits – and that rapid memory decline is more likely to lead to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's disease in the elderly population. It is possible that becoming aware of this will enable us reduce our consumption of processed foods while increasing our consumption of foods high in the omega-3 fatty acid DHA, thereby preventing or slowing the progression of the disease."

The study was published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity.

Using animal models, Barrientos' laboratory investigates how common life events – such as surgery, infection, or, in this case, an unhealthy diet – can cause inflammation in the aging brain, focusing on the hippocampus and amygdala regions in particular. Based on previous research, she believes that a high-fat diet consumed for a short period of time can cause memory loss and brain inflammation in older animals. She also believes that lower DHA levels in the hippocampus and amygdala of the aged rat brain can contribute to memory loss and brain inflammation.

DHA, also known as docosahexaenoic acid, is an omega-3 fatty acid that can be found in fish and other seafood, along with eicosapentaenoic acid, which is also found in fish (EPA). One of the many functions of DHA in the brain is its ability to prevent an inflammatory response – this is the first study to demonstrate that DHA can prevent brain inflammation caused by a processed diet – and this is the first study to demonstrate that it can prevent brain inflammation caused by a processed diet.

A highly processed diet (19.6 percent protein, 63.3 percent refined carbs derived from cornstarch, maltodextrin, and sucrose) or the same processed diet supplemented with DHA were fed to 3-month-old and 24-month-old male rats, respectively. The normal diet contained 32 percent protein, 54 percent complex carbs derived from wheat, and 14 percent fat.

It was found that the activation of genes associated with a powerful pro-inflammatory protein and other markers of inflammation was significantly increased in the hippocampus and amygdala of older rats fed the processed diet alone, compared to young rats fed any diet and aged rats fed the processed diet with DHA supplementation (see Figure 1).

According to the results of behavioral experiments, older rats fed a processed diet showed signs of memory loss that were not evident in the younger rats. Because they quickly forgot that they had spent any time in an unfamiliar environment, this indicated problems with contextual memory in the hippocampus, and they did not exhibit anticipatory fear behavior in response to a danger cue, this indicated abnormalities in the amygdala.

"The amygdala in humans has been linked to memories associated with emotionally charged – fear and anxiety-inducing – events, according to research. If this region of the brain is dysfunctional, it is possible to miss danger cues, resulting in poor decision-making and consequences "Barrientos went on to explain.

The findings also revealed that supplementing the aged rats' processed-food diets with DHA was effective in preventing an elevated inflammatory response in the brain, as well as behavioral signs of memory impairment.

The amount of DHA – as well as the exact number of calories and nutrients – consumed by the animals, who had unlimited access to food, is unknown to the researchers at this time. After being fed a processed diet, both age groups gained significantly more weight than they had previously, with older animals gaining significantly more than younger animals. The use of DHA supplements had no effect on the weight gain associated with the consumption of highly processed foods.

While this was a significant discovery, Dr. Barrientos cautioned that it should not be interpreted as a green light for consumers to consume processed foods as long as they were taking a DHA supplement. She went on to explain that focusing on overall diet improvement would be a better strategy for avoiding the multiple negative effects of highly refined foods in the long run.

"In this category are diets that promote themselves as low in fat while actually being highly processed. They are devoid of fiber and contain refined carbohydrates, which are also known as low-quality carbohydrates, as well as other unhealthy ingredients "She went on to explain. "The amount of fiber and the quality of carbohydrates should be carefully considered by those who are accustomed to examining nutritional information on food labels. The findings of this study demonstrate how important those factors are."

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