Your Brain On Butter: The Fats That May Hasten Mental Decline

Researchers link saturated fats found in butter and red meat to cognitive and memory decline in older women. (madlyinlovewithlife/flickr)

What’s good for the heart is good for the brain, the medical thinking goes.

Here’s the latest twist: What’s bad for the heart turns out to be bad for the brain. Put another way, some fats may make us stupider — or at least less cognitively on the ball.

Amid growing evidence that what we eat has a profound impact on brain function, researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston found that women who consumed the highest amounts of saturated fat — which can come from animal fats like red meat and butter — had worse overall cognitive function and memory over four years of testing compared to women who ate the lowest amounts of such fats. Moreover, women who consumed the most monounsaturated fats — think olive oil — scored better on the cognitive function tests over time.

(Trans-fats found in processed and baked goods — like those ginormous muffins they used to sell at the corner deli — are also considered “bad” but in this particular study, they weren’t associated with declines in cognitive ability.)

To be clear, this latest research doesn’t mean that if you start cooking with olive oil instead of butter you’ll suddenly be able to locate your car keys or remember your mother-in-law’s birthday.

But it does strongly suggest that the type of fat you eat matters, and overall, certain so-called bad fats can undermine all kinds of cognitive function as well as short and long-term memory as you age, says Dr. Olivia Okereke, the study’s lead author and a psychiatrist at Brigham and Women’s. The research, which evaluated 6,000 women over 65, a subset of the larger Women’s Health Study, was published online in the medical journal Annals of Neurology.

Okereke said in an interview that the findings have significant public health implications and a fairly straightforward take-home message: “If people substitute out portions of saturated fat and replace it with the same amounts of monounsaturated fat, like substituting olive oil in place of butter,” she said, “it’s a simple dietary modification that could prevent decline in memory.”

She cited earlier research that suggests even slight declines in cognitive functioning can lead to a higher risk of developing more serious problems, like full-blown dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

This study didn’t look at why bad fat might chip away at cognitive function as we age. Okereke theorized that bad fats might be linked to inflammation or changes in lipid profiles. But she said the precise mechanism that connects saturated fat consumption with brain function requires further study. “It’s long been known that overall cardiovascular health is good for cognitive function,” she said, “So it makes sense that the same factors that are good for cardiovascular health would also be good for cognitive function.”

Researchers involved in a study published earlier this year that found cognitive decline might began as early as age 45, reiterated that heart health and brain health go hand in hand. Dr. Frances Grodstein, an associate professor of medicine at Brigham and Women’s who studies aging and was also involved in the latest dietary fat study, told CommonHealth: “A simple way to think about it is that cardiovascular disease and brain health really seem to share a lot of risk factors. So most of the things we think about in terms of heart health probably work for brain health as well: Diet, exercise, things people have been telling you about for years.”

In the latest dietary fat study, cognitive function was measured in several ways, including tests of attention, list learning, evaluating short and long-term memory and so-called category fluency, in which subjects are asked, for instance, to list as many animals as possible in one minute. Researchers combined the results of all the tests to get a picture of what overall cognitive function looks like.

Asked if the findings might change the way she practices medicine, or her own personal diet, Okereke said health care providers — including mental health specialists — should consider initiating conversations with patients about the differences and potential impacts of various fats. “I would say it has definitely enlightened me about the potential importance of these types of fats,” she said. “It’s very enlightening.”

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  • Darius

    bigest bul–sh..t i ever read “Remember : Butter is energy for your brain, butter contains 8%” i. Brain take energy from glucose ketones are used when you dont get glucose check adverse effect of prolonged use of ketones instead glucose. (look what hypoglycemia do to brain)

    “your brain insulin will become resistant overtime if you eat too much carbs, this is why scientists are seriously considering Alzheimer’s to be a form of diabetes type 3″ look at Japan and Italy they consume the most carbs in there diet and neurodegenerative disases are lowest in this nations.

    “This is the lobby of vegetable oil industry making” you think that meat industry dont do the same ? (paleo diet)

    About caffeine

    “Higher habitual coffee consumption was associated with higher insulin sensitivity (1) and a lower risk for type 2 diabetes (2–6) in diverse populations. In contrast, short-term metabolic studies showed that caffeine intake can acutely lower insulin sensitivity (7–9) and increase glucose concentrations”

  • ren_fr

    I also wanted to add, don’t substitute your butter with margarine!
    Margarine increases CVD risk and is bad for you.

    Margarine is poor’s man butter, did you know margarine was created under Napoleon III to make a cheaper substitute of butter?
    Did you know margarine is in fact grey in colour and NOT yellow? That’s normal, margarine is made up of melted animal fats mixed with water…
    Margarine is a very low quality product and honestly butter is so cheap that you don’t need to buy margarine instead.
    Just be careful when you cook with butter, don’t let the butter because brown, once it starts to become brown the butter loses its vitamins and can even become dangerous for your health so try to put it after you cook the food and for meats maybe you can replace it with olive oil.

  • ren_fr

    What a load of complete idiocy. This study is faked and this article is bogus.
    This is the lobby of vegetable oil industry making up fake studies to tell us that butter and meats are bad for you and vegetable oil is good for you.
    It’s not because it’s a study that it is reliable, non-independent studies are subject to a lot of fraud so be careful when you read such studies.
    If butter was bad for me, I wouldn’t have seen a huge increase in brain function and memory in the recents month after starting a high butter diet (I take nearly one stick a day), turns out my brain fog disappeared, my brain functions better, I have plenty of energy and I feel great all the day, butter has truly changed my life for the better.
    Of course aside from that I have an healthy diet (I’m trying to be paleo but it’s difficult for me to not exceed a bit on carbs), if that study was done on people eating mcdonalds everyday then I would understand the results…
    Remember : Butter is energy for your brain, butter contains 8% MCT which are directly used as a fuel for your brain (ketones), you can either get energy from ketones (from fat) or sugar.

    The brain prefers fat over sugar because blood sugar varies during the day and this can cause depression, crash feeling, brain fog, etc… with fat you don’t get that since your body will take directly fat from its stores (which btw can help you lose weight).

    Also cognitive decline is due because you don’t take enough fat and too much carbs, fat doesn’t disturbs insulin, carbs does and your brain insulin will become resistant overtime if you eat too much carbs, this is why scientists are seriously considering Alzheimer’s to be a form of diabetes type 3.

    Prefer fats over sugar and cut on your caffeine, caffeine robs your energy of tomorrow, it dries out your adrenals, it causes hyperglycemia hence insulin resistance, fat is a better source of energy than caffeine and can even keep you up late.

    Last but not least, cholesterol in butter and meats doesn’t affect your cholesterol levels, your body has 35g of cholesterol stored, everyday it produces 1000mg of cholesterol, 100g of butter contains 250mg of cholesterol, the body adapts its production of cholesterol according to your intake so the more cholesterol you eat the less you produce, it’s a compensatory mechanism. Another compensatory mechanism is that absorption is decreased with the quantities of cholesterol you take, the more you take, the less is absorbed.
    On saturated fat, NO study has ever made the link between CVD and saturated fats, these studies were in fact omissive and bogus, there’s a great blog which makes a good analysis of these studies and show there’s no increased risk of CVD by eating saturated fats.

    You just need to balance out saturated and insaturated, take more saturated than insaturated and keep your insaturated fat sources well stored, protected because insaturated fats are very unstable.
    To finish with this comment, LDL is not a factor of CVD risk, this is pure BS, Lp(a) (a subtype of LDL) IS a strong factor of CVD risk however the more LDL you have DOES NOT mean you have more Lp(a), if you want to assess your risk of CVD ask a Lp(a) test not a LDL test. CVD is not caused by high cholesterol, cholesterol is anti-inflammatory in fact and is present on artery plaques because there was inflammation, inflammation is caused by a bad lifestyle, high carb diet and high omega 6/omega 3 ratio so take your fish oil caps to reduce inflammation because we eat way too much omega 6, keep your ratio below 4 and also let me remind you that omega 3 is great to reduce CVD because it reduces blood coagulation (don’t combine with anticoagulants or even aspirin!)

  • Ademito

    This article is horrible. No stats given??? And a hospital is posting this article -oh brotha. 

  • John Myers

    Apparently the USDA food pyramid is the new religion. It is the holy canon and no new relevant information is allowed in, even when we can trace the obesity epidemic back to it.

  • Sally Richardson O’Boyle

    How do you explain the fact that coconut oil has been shown to halt and in some cases reverse dementia? I agree with Sloppy Science: this is a joke.

  • GregX

    This is just general information about the bodies processing food.  Not an absolute end statement.  If you have concerns – find a cognitive test you can take every day/week.  weigh yourself and keep a record.  “Assign” your self a certain amount of activty per day or week ( walking , biking, stretching, …). Manage your intake of foods ( create a meal plan or measure/calc everything you eat or cut out certain foods) ….. and keep track of it.   then you are “studying” yourself and will have the information necessary to make decisions about you.  You can compare your cognitive test results with your other measurements – and adjust as necessary.

  • Sjfone

    Where did I put my jelly doughnuts?

  • Linda

    Did they just grab people at random? Did the study take into account the basic IQ and background of said people? Most readers have known about the danger of saturated fats for years. Did they know if those tested were ignorant of this fact, or just choosing to ignore it? After all, you don’t need a study to know that what is bad for the circulatory system is bad for the brain. Did the study start with a group of people already eating saturated fats, then split that group, and take one section off saturated fats? If it did not, the results are skewed. Right?

  • k8

    It’s not actually that surprising that different types of fats that we consume have different effects on our brain – the lipids in our brains are extremely important in the electrical workings (myelin sheaths surrounding all of our nerves that are necessary to conduct nerve impulses).  If one type of fat, which happens to be solid at room temperature, is worse for building fluid nerve impulses than other fats that are liquid at room temperature, it’s not that huge of a logical jump.  Everything in moderation, right?   Just don’t try to survive solely on butter and you’ll probably be fine.

  • Mkwojahn

    It’s all “might” and “may” nothing is for sure.  The fact is every bodies body is different.  There are 100 plus year olds living at home, whose minds are clear and active, who never ate anything but what is “supposed” to be bad for you.  The truth is you can eat organic, pasture raised, 100% natural and die at 25 or younger.  Eat what feels good for you, not what someone else thinks is good.

    • Fredsaid

       There are some 100 year old smokers too.  That doesn’t make it good for you.

  • Douggyg

    I love how natural foods which have been consumed for thousands of years and which have been given high historical importance in societies around the world get demonized. The scientific lab of the 21st century has figured it out. Don’t let milk set and make and consume your fresh butter. That has lots of vitamins and calories to keep you feeling satiated and who would want that. Instead, plant this tree. Then graft this other thing to it. Then wait years till it grows and fruits. Then collect many of the fruits. Then make a machine to squeeze the fruits. Collect the oil. Or better yet. Sow acres of poisonous rape. Build giant machines to process this vegetable so you can extract the tiny bit of oil found in each plant. Then bleach it so it doesn’t taste like rotting poisonous garbage. Now put that on your salad. It’s good for your heart. Forget the butter. After all, the people of the past tens of thousands of years had no vege oil, and look at all the heart disease their butter eating high saturated fat diets caused them. Hell, I’m surprised they lasted as long as they did, and were able to reproduce, after all, where were all the olive groves and canola fields 2 thousand years ago.

    • John Myers

       America has had a huge crush on the idea that technology will solve all our problems since World War 2.
      But that doesn’t work so good with our food supply – it’s how we got fake food. Yay us!

  • John Myers

    Fredsaid  – They’ve been telling us that saturated fat is bad for 50 years, without ever bothering to test that out in a randomized controlled trial.
    They finally did the RCTs in the past few years and it turns out that a high fat diet is better for you than say, the USDA food pyramid diet, which at its base is all processed carbohydrates, or the Ornish diet.
    Blood lipid profile improves, and you lose more weight with low carb, high fat (LCHF) diets.

    • Fredsaid

      Who are “they” that claim saturated fats are benign, if not harmful?  It is clearly documented in numerous lab studies and the general population that saturated fats raise triglyceride and cholesterol levels in the blood.  These are major risk factors associated with the development of atherosclerosis, hypertension and heart disease.

      Fats are necessary for good health and those unequivocally are the unsaturated fats.

      • Go Primal!

        All those studies that say saturated fats are bad were done in the context of high carbohydrate consumption. High carbs means that (1) your body stays in a pro-inflammatory state and (2) insulin is almost constantly recruited to keep blood sugar levels in a non-toxic zone. Trouble is, insulin also affects how fats are managed. Oops! Suddenly you have a whole system geared toward inflammation and fat storage — not due to the fats, but due to the carbs.

        If, as John Myers says, you keep carbs to a non-insuligenic minimum, your body manages fats — including saturated fats — in a completely different, healthy, non-inflammatory way.

        Check out Gary Taubes, Mark Sisson, Dr. Mary Dan Eades, Dr. Michael Eades, Dr. William Davis, Dr. Peter Attia, and on and on and on for folks who have done the research, read the literature and come to the conclusion (backed by their own health histories and improved lipid profiles) that low-carb high-fat is not only acceptable but BY FAR preferable to the standard American diet with its grain-based, low-fat completely modern and erroneous food pyramid.

  • Fredsaid

    I Can Believe It’s Butter.

    Everyone here seems to have their own similar opinions.  This study is suggestive and maybe correct or is at least consistent with numerous previous studies- saturated fats are bad for us.

    You can accept the facts or just keep on thinking what you want to.   

  • Msmaxiale

    Well, I couldn’t even finish reading the article (They lost me at transfats). My husband has been in the military for 20 years so his health has been monitored since 1992. His doctors can’t understand why he doesn’t have high cholesterol, etc, etc. We’ve been married for 10 of those years and all I use is butter and peanut oil. We order our meat from a farm. If it is processed or manmade I try not to eat it. I cook most stuff from scratch (beans, rice, fresh veggies). I do buy organic bread from Rudys. We do snack. The key is eating real food and moving your body.

  • Kt Vanw

    Butter is much better for you than corn oil or any other synthetic blend of oil – it’s easier to digestively break down and it does things olive oil can’t do.  The key here, like everything in life, is moderation.  Go ahead and use a little butter and stop feeling guilty.  A little bit of butter (we’re talking 1/2 tsp or even less – not even what restaurants call a pat of butter) with olive oil with help caramelize those onions, will brown those boneless, skinless chicken pieces better, and will add a little flavor.  A smear on your toast won’t kill you, either.  If you want to have better cognitive abilities, eat rounded meals heavy on fresh veggies and fruits, exercise at least thirty minutes every single day, get plenty of rest every night, and maintain a healthy weight.

  • FB

    Let’s wait for the study that finds that butter is good for cognition.

  • timestwo

    Maybe if all our butter wasn’t pasteurized and came from confined cows it wouldn’t be as bad for us. I wish they would do studies using “real” food…Like raw pasture raised butter. Also if you cook/bake with olive oil instead that won’t help. Olive oil is delicate and should not be heated. If it is heated it will actually be bad for you.

    • Mkwojahn

      Hmm.. I don’t understand “raw pasture raised butter.”  Butter is made from milk, it is not raised in a pasture.  The source of the food the cow eats has nothing to do with how your butter performs.  That is determined by the manufacturer of the butter.

      • Go Primal!

        In fact, it is well-established in the animal science/dairy science literature that a cow’s diet PROFOUNDLY affects the fats produced in her system. A lot of it has to do with the microbial population in the rumen, which changes dramatically depending on whether the cow is fed pasture/hay/haylage or fed grains/corn silage. Each microbe tends to synthesize different kinds of fatty acids, so the cow will produce, say, not-so-good Omega-6 fatty acids in her milk (and hence, butter) if she eats a fair amount of grain OR plenty of wonderful-for-you Omega-3 fatty acids if she eats exclusively pasture/hay/haylage.

      • Megan

         Lol. So wrong. How the cows eat has everything to do with the nutrient profile of butter. Butter from grass-fed cows has much higher levels of CLA, whereas in grain-fed or feed lot cows, the levels of CLA in their milk dies off with each successive day they feed on the poor quality grains (as well as the leftover grains from the distillery industry, which are not a natural part of the cow’s diet, and do them a lot of harm).

        Grass-fed butter also contains much higher levels of pre-formed vitamin A (in contrast to another form of vitamin A, beta-carotene, which must be converted by the body – a conversion most people do not make efficiently), as evidenced by its deeper yellow-orange color.

        A few other ways grass-fed butter is superior:

        - It contains vitamin K2, an essential nutrient to glowing health.
        - An omega 3- and 6- fatty acid ratio of 1. (Most people consume too many omega 6 fatty acids, which leads to a decline in health.
        - It also just tastes richer and more delicious.

        Cows need to be feeding on rapidly growing green grasses that grow from May – September. If you go to a local health food store you may even find the Organic Valley pasture butter, which is produced from cows that graze from May – September and says so on the label. This is a decent substitute if you cannot access the previously mentioned raw butter from pasture-fed cows.

        In regards to the comment, “[How your butter performs] is determined by the manufacturer of the butter”, that makes no sense to me. Once a farmer milks a cow, skims the cream, and makes butter, he cannot change the nutrient content of the butter other than by adding synthetic vitamins to it, which does nobody any good.

        Many good reasons to eat meat and dairy products from grass-fed cows:

  • Guest

    Bring on the Paula Deen jokes…..

  • Sloppy Science

    This is a crappy study that only shows correlation between the two. It did not take other dietary factors into account such as actual blood work on the subjects or whether they have their insulin in check. It’s also running under the false assumption that saturated fats are “bad fats”. This is a joke.

    • John Myers

       Epidemiology has a very low rate of return, but it is cheap compared to randomized controlled studies.
      Epidemiology is good at generating hypotheses. But you have to test them. That’s expensive.
      Even if you throw in a ‘may’ or ‘could’ into the report, putting out epidemiological studies in an article is bad journalism based on bad science.

      • Go Primal!

        Could not agree more!

  • Adks12020

    They could just say, all things in moderation…I love the taste of butter but I also know that eating a bunch of butter everyday is not healthy so I generally only use it sparingly in favor of olive oil.

    • Rachel Zimmerman

      Good point. I totally agree. RZ

    • Go Primal!

      What you think “you know” is the conventional wisdom that we have been spoon-fed (and force-fed in the form of farm subsidies for wheat and corn) for 40 years. Even as a scientist, I thought my fellow scientists were doing things right and would not lead us all astray. My mistake!

      Enter the US Congress in the form of the McGovern Committee on nutrition in 1976 and — presto, changeo — scientists who did not agree that high-grain, low-fat was the way to go were silenced, denied research funding, forced out of their university posts and generally vilified for not towing the line.

      And here we are, 36 years later, with rampant diabetes, obesity, metabolic syndrome and — surprise, surprise — senile cognitive impairment!!!! Go figure.

      Better yet, go watch the film FatHead, read Wheat Belly, or Good Calories, Bad Calories, or any of the books by Drs. Michael and Mary Dan Eades. Visit Mark Sisson’s website for a community of people who have regained their health, vitality and well-being by rejecting the high-grain, low-fat standard American diet preached by conventional wisdom. It will change your life!

  • John Myers

    Sorry, but this sounds like more useless epidemiological nonsense. 

  • Alyssa Magnuson

    Yea, butter is actually NOT that bad for you… so eat it and get smart!

  • John Myers

    You might want to check out Stanford U’s AtoZ diet study.
    They found that high fat diets are good for heart disease risk factors.
    There have been many good randomized controlled trials out there in the past few years showing the same results.

    • Fredsaid

      I don’t see anything in the Stanford study that suggests high SATURATED fats are good for heart disease.  I see the study showed the best initial weight loss was with the Atkins diet.  The latest version of the Atkins diet is high in polyunsaturated fats.

      • John Myers

         Fredsaid – here’s a link to the scientist from Stanford who lead the investigation giving the results.
        It’s long but fascinating. He clearly states that high fat diets drive down triglyceride levels, and also that all fats did this – even the trans fat (which I personally do try to avoid). High carb diets drive up triglyceride levels.
        He also says that he’s a 25 year vegetarian. Anyway…

        • Fredsaid

          John- This Stanford study compares diets, weight loss, and metabolic data.  I only skimmed through the video, but if you listen at about 24.5 minutes Gardner answers a question about Atkins versus the high carbohydrate low fat diets.

          People on these other diets (high carbohydrates and no fats) had elevated triglycerides and lower HDLs; Gardner goes on to say, after these people added the “good UNSATURATED fats” to their diet: “nuts, seeds, avocados” their triglycerides went down and their HDLs went up.

          Unsaturated fats are necessary for good health, and even the Atkins diet recommends foods with significant amounts of polyunsaturated fats.

          Saturated fats raise triglycerides, raise cholesterol and lower HDLs.  These are significant risk factors for cardiovascular disease (and perhaps mental decline).

          • Fredsaid

             Saturated fats raise LDLs.

          • John Myers

            Please watch right about 30 minutes in.

          • Fredsaid

            I’m not certain what your point is.  At 30 minutes Gardner shows that a low carbohydrate diet (higher fat/protein diet) is more effective at losing weight.  He claims on the issue of weight loss, in response to a question (that’s almost inaudible), that it doesn’t matter what type of fat is consumed.  So here he’s only talking about weight loss.

            This does not contradict what he said at 24.5 minutes or what I wrote above.  There are “good” fats that are necessary for good health and “bad” fats that we should avoid- the saturated fats.

            It’s worth noting that not all plant foods and oils are harmless.  Lots of processed foods are made with palm oil which is a saturated fat and should be avoided.  The same is true for coconut another saturated fat.

          • John Myers

            Ok Fred – let’s do this a different way.
            Pleas show me some evidence that saturated fat causes heart disease.

          • Fredsaid

             Really John, there must be 50 or more years of data on this subject (lab. and epidemiological).  This discussion reminds me of the tobacco industry, climate change, intelligent design arguments, etc.

            It’s true diet and health isn’t as simple as was once thought.  There are many factors besides just calories and fat consumption that determine good health including genetics.  (In this week’s news alone, it seems HDLs don’t function as was once thought and much is continually being learned.)

            Even the Atkins diet emphasizes a protein source that’s high in polyunsaturated fats.

            People often listen to what they want to hear.  I’ll go with the research that comprises 99.99% of the data over the last half century that indicates consumption of saturated fats and cholesterol are bad for your health.

            It really is too bad butter tastes as good as it does.

          • Fredsaid

            (I should say EXCESSIVE consumption of saturated fats and cholesterol seem to be bad for one’s health.)

          • John Myers

             Yes I realize what they’ve been saying for the last 50 years about dietary fat and dietary cholesterol. Once they arrived at that hypothesis, that a diet high in saturated fat leads to cardiovascular disease, they should have tested it with a randomized controlled trial.
            But they didn’t.
            The Stanford study (linked above) was the first or among the first to do the good science. So is a high fat diet okay in the long term? That’s the big question in my mind.
            What we do know for sure is once the low fat craze started in the 80s, that’s also when the obesity epidemic began.

          • Fredsaid

            John- I think you’re missing an important distinction that I keep repeating and is even stated in the video.  It’s the TYPES of fats that we consume that are very important.

            Old thinking  used to be (decades ago) when cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood were high to remove all fats from the diet.  It’s now well understood that polyunsaturated fats (like fish oil and from nuts, seeds, grains, etc.) are essential to good health and even reduce LDLs (the “bad” cholesterol)

            Diets high in saturated fats and cholesterol correlate strongly with cardiovascular disease and its associated factors like elevated LDLs and reduced HDLs the “good” cholesterol.

          • Craig

            You keep saying this but it simply is not true. No conclusive data has ever shown this.

          • Craig

            As well as raise HDL and lower triglycerides. Please do your research and let go of your bias.

    • Fredsaid

      That is: fish, olive oil, other polyunsaturated oils, etc.  Even though some saturated fats are allowed in this diet, it still doesn’t mean it’s good for us.  Anyway, the study was looking at weight loss, and the LONG term effects of the Atkins diet were not studied, (as stated in the article).  There’s plenty of evidence against the Atkins diet and the metabolic stress high protein diets place on the kidneys and other organs.