Cutting Back on Added Sugar: Your Brain Will Thank You

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I spy too much sugar in the foods we eat and the beverages we drink. Unlike naturally occurring sugars in foods such as fruit, added sugars and syrups are included during the preparation or processing of our food and drink.

While sugar does provide our body with energy, the problem is that too many people in the U.S. consume well over the recommended amount of added sugar, which should be less than 10% of your total energy (calories). The American Heart Association recommends a daily limit of no more than 25 grams of added sugar for women and 36 grams for men. Added sugars may taste sweet, but they are not sweet for your health.

It is well known that too much sugar can increase cardio-metabolic risk factors such as weight gain, diabetes and high blood pressure. These factors also coincide with future risks of dementia or the loss of cognitive functioning.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and is among the fastest growing causes of death in the U.S. Affecting nearly 5.8 million people in the country over the age of 65, Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive neurologic disorder that causes the brain to shrink and brain cells to die. There is no treatment that cures Alzheimer’s disease; we can only manage the symptoms. The best strategy right now is to understand how to prevent dementia from developing.

Our laboratory has been studying the role of both a single meal and a 10-day diet of added sugar on brain health. Our hypothesis is that too much added sugar will increase blood pressure and cause cholesterol and triglycerides to rise, which, in turn, may compromise blood vessel function.

The accumulation of these cardio-metabolic risk factors can lead to a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease later in life. We think that over time eating a high-sugar diet may affect a specific area of the brain called the hippocampus, which is important for learning and recalling memories. Using advanced imaging techniques, we are unraveling the effects of consuming added sugars on brain structure and stiffness and the ability to increase brain blood flow.

As you try to balance your diet, be aware of how much added sugar you’re eating, especially if you enjoy foods such as cereals, desserts, soft drinks, bottled teas and coffees, candy and even many condiments. Your brain will thank you decades from now by cutting back on added sugar today.

Kevin P. Decker, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow in the Neurovascular Aging Laboratory at the University of Delaware. He helps lead a clinical trial about the effects of added sugar consumption on brain function. Decker is interested in studying the role of lifestyle habits, such as diet and exercise, for optimizing cardiovascular and brain health.

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