High-salt diets can trigger major brain change linked to dementia

Eating a diet that is high in salt isn't only bad for your blood pressure — a new study out of Weill Cornell Medicine found that consuming large quantities of sodium may also trigger a change in the brain that paves the way for lowered cognitive performance and, over time, the development of dementia. The issue revolves around nitric oxide, a compound that plays an important role in keeping the brain's vascular system healthy.

Most cells in the human body produce nitric oxide, which is very important for blood vessel health. The compound works by dilating blood vessels, something that improves blood flow and decreases blood pressure, two things that are very important for protecting the brain and cognitive performance, as well as heart health.

Eating foods that contain a lot of salt, however, may cause a drop in the amount of nitric oxide found in the body. When this happens, according to the new study, a protein in the brain called tau may undergo a chemical change that causes it to start accumulating. This accumulation has been linked to cognitive issues and the development of Alzheimer's disease.

Tau accumulation was found to be the cause of dementia observed in mice fed a high-salt diet, not a lack of blood flow in the brain resulting from lowered nitric oxide. That doesn't mean the two aren't linked, however. The study found that it was the drop in nitric oxide resulting from large amounts of salt that triggered tau instability, leading the large deposits.

Though the exact cause of dementia remains unknown, a large and growing body of research has found that lifestyle may play a very large role in whether someone ultimately develops the condition, even in cases where there's a genetic predisposition. Eating a healthy diet, getting adequate levels of high-quality sleep, and exercising regularly may slash one's risk of getting Alzheimer's later in life.