In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s the vilification and fear of fat in food began. Unfortunately, this emphasis has meant that the dangers of sugar has been relatively ignored. The quantity of simple, processed sugars being added to our food has spiked in recent years (it is important to note here that I’m referring to added sugar, not the kinds found naturally in foods such as fruits or grains). Low-fat products litter the supermarket shelves but it is not well known that in order to compensate for the taste deterioration caused by the removal of fats, vast quantities of sugar are added in. Taking yogurt as an example, the full fat versions are actually far healthier – all of the nutrition is in the fatty part that was removed in low far or fat free versions, that is also the part that keeps you fuller and more satisfied for longer. So by eating a low fat yogurt, not only did you lose the vitamins and minerals and take in more sugar than intended, you’re likely to want eat more in the very near future!
This widespread increase in sugar consumption has led to a whole host of physical and mental health issues. While the information here is of importance to everyone, in particular so for the elderly, who require even higher levels of sweetness to compensate for diminished taste perception and olfactory dysfunction (and who are also one of the highest consuming groups of sugars).
Cardiovascular disease (CVD) and type two diabetes have well known links to excessive sugar consumption at all ages, as has metabolic syndrome which is connected to both. What is less well known is the link between these diseases and impaired cognitive function of sufferers. Susceptibility to all of these illnesses increases with age, so the elderly population is the most at risk group for related issues. Mental conditions are relevant as well as the aforementioned physical ones. Studies have shown that rats consuming high levels of sucrose develop increased anxiety-like behaviors, when compared to those fed no sugar or healthy alternatives. Studies have also shown links to depression, and both depression and anxiety have been correlated with cognitive impairment.
The detrimental effects of sugar on our brains extend beyond those exhibiting a specific physical or mental illness, however. There is clear evidence that animals fed a diet consisting of high levels of refined sugar exhibit both behavioral and neurological changes, both of which indicate cognitive impairment. In particular, it has been shown that animals surviving on large quantities of sucrose demonstrate difficulties with learning and also the retrieval of long-term memories when completing spatial learning activities. A recent study funded by the National Institute of Aging and distributed by the Mayo Clinic found that people aged 70 and older were far more likely to develop some kind of cognitive impairment if they consumed a diet rich in sugars. In fact, is was suggested that although a small amount of sugar is positive for successful brain function, eating it in excessive quantities could stop the brain even using the small amount that it needs.
Two other supported connections between sugar and cognitive deficits that don’t necessarily manifest as specific, identifiable illnesses (such as diabetes or CVD) are elevated levels of uric acid production (which is also linked to hypertension and CVD) and inflammation (which is also a risk factor for both CVD and diabetes).
However, humans are designed to crave sweet things from an evolutionary perspective preceding the addition of processed sucrose to many foods and it is unrealistic to believe that people will cut sugar completely from their lives, especially as we need small amounts for healthy brain function.