Dementia haunts the United States. There’s no one without a personal story about how dementia has touched someone they care for. But beyond personal stories, the broader narrative is staggering: By 2050, we are on track to have almost 15 million Alzheimer’s patients in the U.S. alone. That’s roughly the population of New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago combined. Now, add a few more cities to take care of them.
It’s an epidemic that’s already underway — but we don’t recognize it as such. The popular conception of Alzheimer’s is as an inevitable outcome of aging, bad genes, or both.
From a scientist’s perspective, it’s important to remind everyone that we all once believed the same thing about cancer. However, recent research is establishing a link between cancer and processed foods. In a large-scale study, researchers found that a 10 percent increase in consumption of ultra-processed foods led to a 12 percent increase in overall cancer events.
The findings line up with other research that links diet and the risk of Alzheimer’s — and underscore how important lifestyle changes can delay and even prevent the onset of the disease.
In an age of inexpensive personal genomics, there’s a general and persistent sense that as with cancer, Alzheimer’s is an essentially genetic outcome. But in reality, less than 1 percent of the population develops the disease due to genetic mutations in their DNA. To be clear, the vast majority of Alzheimer’s patients are simply not born with those mutations.
For Alzheimer’s, as with cancer — but also as with other conditions like heart disease and diabetes — much of the risk is related to behavioral and lifestyle factors. The consensus among scientists is that over one-third of all Alzheimer’s cases could be prevented by improving our lifestyles. This includes ameliorating cardiovascular fitness, keeping our brains intellectually stimulated, and perhaps most of all: eating better.
Eating better means addressing the American ultra-processed diet. Ultra-processed is a technical term and exists in a spectrum of food processing. An apple straight from the tree is wholly unprocessed. Dry the apple, and store it away with common preservatives like sulfur dioxide, and it becomes a processed food.