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Gluten Not Linked to Cognitive Decline for Most People

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Gluten Not Linked to Cognitive Decline for Most People

A person’s intake of gluten — a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye (and crosses of these grains, such as triticale) — isn’t linked to cognitive function in most cases, according to new research published in the journal JAMA Network Open.

In recent years, whether or not to avoid gluten has become a topic of heated debate in some health-minded circles. There’s no debate about whether people with celiac disease — a condition in which eating gluten causes an immune response and inflammation in the small intestine — should avoid gluten. But some people have suggested that gluten can cause problems, like digestive upset or even cognitive problems, outside the context of celiac disease, even though there is scant evidence that this is the case.

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For the latest study, researchers were interested in exploring the relationship between gluten intake and cognitive health over time in people without celiac disease. The participants were women in the United States who took part in the Nurses’ Health Study II, a large general health study that tracked many different outcomes, including performance in cognitive assessments. Data on participants’ diets was collected between 1991 and 2015, while cognitive function was assessed between 2014 and 2019. Gluten intake was adjusted for each participant based on the total number of calories they consumed — this was necessary because otherwise, people who ate more in general might score highest for gluten consumption.

Gluten intake and cognitive health

Among 13,494 women included in the analysis, the average daily gluten consumption was 6.3 grams. Based on their calorie-adjusted gluten intake, participants were divided into five groups of equal size from highest to lowest gluten consumption. After controlling for demographic and lifestyle factors known to contribute to a person’s risk for cognitive decline, the researchers found no relationship between which gluten group a person belonged to and their cognitive performance. This was true for all measured aspects of mental performance (psychomotor speed and attention, learning and working memory, and global cognition). The lack of any relationship remained even after the researchers adjusted for whether people got gluten from various food sources (such as whole grains or refined grains), and when they looked at gluten intake at different points in time or looked at changes in gluten intake over time. Gluten intake also had no impact on cognitive function in women who had already been diagnosed with cancer or dementia.

“Our findings suggest that restricting dietary gluten for the purpose of maintaining or improving cognition is not warranted in the absence of celiac disease or established gluten sensitivity,” the researchers concluded. More research is needed in a more diverse group of participants, they noted, to confirm this finding.

Want to learn more about diabetes and gluten? Read “Gluten Intake Linked to Type 1 Diabetes” and “Gluten-Free Diet Linked to Lower A1C in Type 1 Diabetes: ADA 2019.”

Quinn Phillips

Quinn Phillips

Quinn Phillips on social media

A freelance health writer and editor based in Wisconsin, Phillips has a degree from Harvard University. He is a former Editorial Assistant for Diabetes Self-Management and has years of experience covering diabetes and related health conditions. Phillips writes on a variety of topics, but is especially interested in the intersection of health and public policy.

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