LOWELL -- Highly processed foods are known to contribute to obesity, high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes. Now there's something else to worry about - brain function.
Katherine Tucker, director of UMass Lowell's Center for Population Health, recently received a $3.9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the effects of highly processed foods on cognitive decline.
The five-year study aims to find out if consuming processed foods such as white rice, soda, frozen meals and deli meat contributes to dementia.
"In the U.S. today, people tend to be deficient of nutrients such as magnesium, potassium and vitamin B6 due to the consumption of highly processed foods that lack necessary nutrients and overload on others," said Tucker, a professor of nutritional epidemiology in the Department of Biomedical and Nutritional Sciences.
Tucker and her team have been following the nutrition and health risk factors of 1,500 people originally from Puerto Rico who live in in the Boston area for a series of in-depth studies that began 12 years ago. This research will look at approximately 700 participants of that project to determine if there is a connection between diet and dementia.
Past research led by Tucker showed that vitamin B6 deficiency was associated with inflammation, oxidative stress, metabolic syndrome, diabetes and depressive symptoms in adult participants. These health issues, said Tucker, are far more prevalent among lower-income populations, such as some in the cohort she is studying.
"When you lack the resources to buy healthy foods, you buy the cheapest foods you can, which probably means they're highly processed," she said.
The researchers will study the effects of two nutrients in particular - phosphorus and vitamin B6 - on the brain.
While the body needs phosphorus for energy, metabolism and other functions, too much of the nutrient is harmful. Some food manufacturers add low-cost phosphate compounds to foods for many reasons, including to make food last longer, stay creamier and maintain juiciness. Both regular and diet colas also contain phosphorus.
"We know that dietary phosphorus intake is on the rise in the U.S. population and that it may be contributing to cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis," said Tucker. "Animal studies suggest that excess phosphorus may also negatively affect a hormone that protects the brain from aging."
While phosphorus intake tends to be too high in the U.S. population, vitamin B6 intake tends to be too low, according to Tucker. The vitamin, which is important in keeping the brain and nervous system functioning properly, can be easily lost when manufacturers process foods. Foods that contain the vitamin when not processed include nuts, seeds, beans, poultry, fish, potatoes and bananas.
By using data from the Boston Puerto Rican Health Study, Tucker and her team will analyze diet, nutritional biomarkers and change in cognitive function by adding new outcome measures. About 700 of the participants will return for a repeat battery of cognitive exams and about 350 for MRIs to assess relationships with brain size and cell losses.
"We will quantify the associations between usual intake of processed foods, phosphorus and vitamin B6 in relation to cognitive decline and brain health," said Tucker. "With the growing and aging Latino population in the U.S, the study results will provide information critical to our understanding of how to improve health in this high-risk population."
"While nutrition deficiencies tend to be more common in this population, the results can be applied to everyone," Tucker added.