Ask an Expert: Salt and Cognitive Decline

We have known for a long time that too much salt in the diet can lead to heart disease but little has been known about its effect on the brain.

A recently completed Baycrest study suggests that older adults who eat too much salt and don’t exercise are at greater risk of cognitive decline.

Our study monitored the general cognitive function — including short and long term memory, language, attention, etc. — of 1,262 healthy men and women (ages 67-84) over three years. Their salt consumption and level of physical activity were measured at the beginning of the study (baseline).

Health Canada recommends that adults consume no more than 2,300 mg of sodium (i.e. salt) per day. The study participants were assessed as low-, mid- or high-level sodium consumers. Those in the low sodium intake group reported consumption of sodium levels between 677 and 2,263 mg a day; the mid sodium intake group reported levels between 2,263 and 3,090 mg a day; and the high sodium intake group reported levels between 3,091 and 8,098 mg a day.

Although not a complete surprise, given previous reports of population salt intake, it was striking to find that only those in the low sodium intake group reported levels that met Health Canada recommendations.

The results of our study showed that a diet high in salt, combined with little exercise, was especially detrimental to the cognitive performance of older adults. But the good news is that sedentary older adults showed no cognitive decline over the three-year follow-up period, if they consumed low levels of salt.

What we learn from this research is that snacking on high-salt, processed snacks while watching too much television or spending too much time at a computer is not good for our brains. To maintain our physical and cognitive health as we age, we may need to cut down on the salt and become more active.

It is never too late to change your lifestyle and begin making more health- conscious decisions.

— Dr. Alexandra Fiocco, Assistant Professor at Ryerson University and previous post-doctoral scholar at Baycrest.

Photo © Juanmonino

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