Food additives and severe dementia

Posted on Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Dementia affects almost 50 million people worldwide, and in Australia there are over 450,000 people living with dementia.

Dementia describes a syndrome characterised by the impairment of brain function, including language, memory, perception, personality and cognitive skills. 

Agitation is common in people with dementia. Agitation decreases a person’s quality of life and refers to a range of behaviours, including restlessness, pacing, and verbally and physically aggressive behaviours.

Because agitation is challenging to treat, medication is often preferred over the recommended nonpharmacological interventions.

Our Brightwater Research Centre tried to find a non-pharmacological intervention that can reduce agitation.

Artificial food additives have long been suggested to affect behaviour in children. However, there was no research on the effects of food additives on older people. Specifically, it was unknown whether artificial colours and preservatives contribute to agitation in older people with dementia.

Our Research Centre tested whether the removal of drinks that contain artificial food colours, such as cordial which is a major source of additives, would decrease agitation in the elderly population with severe dementia.

They compared more than 50 participants’ agitation levels across the following two periods:

  • 2 weeks of usual care, where participants were given additive-rich drinks such as cordial
  • 2 weeks where they were given additive-free orange juice in place of cordial

The Brightwater Research Centre found that:

  • Nearly 80% of participants responded positively to eliminating drinks with artificial colours and additives 
  • The severity of agitation decreased by 23% 
  • The frequency of agitated behaviours overall reduced significantly 
  • The number of falls decreased significantly

In other words, eliminating drinks with artificial colours and other food additives, often found in cordials has a positive impact on behaviours in people with severe dementia. Dr Seewann, our lead researcher, also added that while it was not part of the study, it was recommended to limit other sources of artificial colours and preservatives, such as confectionery and ice creams for people with severe dementia.

Brightwater is the only home care provider in WA with a dedicated Research Centre – a hub of discovery and innovation, collaborating with national and international universities to find innovative solutions to improve the quality of lives of our clients. To find out more about the Brightwater Research Centre, click here