It’s no secret that inflammation wreaks total havoc on your body. It’s sneaky and insidious, and it can affect everything from how well you sleep each night to your daily comfort (or constant aches and pains). And if you keep inflammation out of sight and out of mind, letting it occur freely, it just might increase your risk for cognitive conditions like dementia.
Now, the body of research surrounding cognitive health is highlighting a potential link between an inflammatory diet and a higher risk of dementia later in life. It’s not the first study to draw a connection between inflammation and cognitive health – which is why you need to know how much a role inflammation could play in your brain’s strength as you age.
Research has found a link between inflammation and cognitive health
For some time, researchers have been looking at the potential influence inflammation has on the brain and its health over time. Their efforts have discovered that inflammation can play a pretty important role, and it’s likely connected to conditions like dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.
Harvard University reports that cases of neurodegenerative diseases are increasing, and research suggests that this may be tied to inflammation. When neuroinflammation (or brain inflammation) occurs, it can affect your thinking, memory and movement. And in some cases, like in those with certain types of dementia, it can also have a negative effect on your personality, behavior and language.
Scientists have connected chronic inflammation with cognitive decline and an increased risk of age-related cognitive impairment. In studies on Alzheimer’s disease, research has suggested that inflammation can throw off your immune system’s normal function, causing the cells to begin harming the body rather than protecting.
Additionally, a 2012 review found evidence that heightened brain inflammation could contribute to and exacerbate cognitive decline in older adults. Individuals’ baseline levels of inflammatory markers increased with age, and high levels of inflammation were found to negatively affect cognitive processes like memory, processing speed and overall cognitive function. The review pinpointed lifestyle factors and modifiable behaviors as playing an important role in inflammation’s impact on the brain.
So, inflammation may be intimately linked to how the brain ages and how conditions like various types of dementia may appear. But your lifestyle can also play a role – especially if you’re indulging in inflammatory habits. And new research suggests that the more inflammatory your lifestyle is, the higher your risk for cognitive conditions might be.
Inflammatory foods may heighten your risk for dementia
One key lifestyle habit that can affect both your inflammation levels and your cognitive health? Your diet.
A November 2021 study is drawing a potential link between diet and dementia, or an inflammatory diet and dementia. Researchers took a look at over 1,000 participants in Greece, with an average age of 73 years old and no history of dementia. The participants answered a food questionnaire, which was then used to assess how inflammatory each person’s diet was.
Researchers categorized the participants into three groups based on their diet’s inflammatory score – low, medium and high. Those in the low group ate at least 20 servings of fruit, 19 servings of vegetables, 4 servings of beans or other legumes and 11 servings of coffee or tea each week. The participants in the high group ate just 9 servings of fruit, 10 servings of vegetables, 2 servings of legumes and 9 servings of coffee or tea weekly.
About three years after collecting this dietary data, researchers followed up with the participants. In that timespan, 62 of the participants (or 6 percent) had developed dementia. And those who did develop dementia had highly inflammatory diets in common.
Researchers found that even small increases in inflammatory foods could lead to as much as a 21 percent higher risk of developing dementia. Overall, those who ate the most highly inflammatory diets were three times more likely to be diagnosed with dementia.
While scientists note that this study was observational, not clinical, it does suggest that there may be an association between inflammatory eating behaviors and cognitive health. Eating fewer anti-inflammatory foods over the long term just may result in a potentially higher risk for developing dementia.
Stick with an anti-inflammatory diet for overall better brain health
Though more research is needed to confirm just how much of a potential risk an inflammatory diet can pose for your cognitive health as you age, we know that chronic inflammation can cause problems throughout your entire body. So, why wait until it begins impacting your brain? With a healthy, anti-inflammatory diet now, you can age with confidence – and better overall health.
Researchers from the above study noted that a variety of different nutrients present in foods can contribute to how inflammatory your diet is. But other research can help pinpoint which foods might be the most beneficial for your brain and lowering inflammation.
A 2019 review that examined the link between dietary patterns and neurodegeneration found that overall anti-inflammatory dietary patterns, like the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet might potentially be neuroprotective. Both of these diets contain foods rich in nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants and polyphenols. And those particular nutrients may stop the neuroinflammation that’s associated with conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. The review also pointed out that anti-inflammatory diets can help reduce neuroinflammation through the gut microbiome and circulatory system.
So, if you’re hoping to keep inflammation at bay to protect your brain, lower your risk for conditions like dementia and reap overall health benefits, anti-inflammatory foods and meals are the way to go. We’ve got plenty for you to explore – you can learn how to master an anti-inflammatory diet and lifestyle in our Eat Clean for Anti-Inflammation guide, or try one of our anti-inflammatory meal plans. Or, explore recipes that feature anti-inflammatory foods that’ll help tame the flames of inflammation.