Brain nutrition in the news

stay sharp with a good diet

While obesity may be causing health havoc worldwide, is scarcely strikes fear in the heart of the average person the way dementia does.  Cognitive decline with age is now a big research field, with an aging population.  Loss of cognitive ability is a scary prospect, not to mention an expensive one.  A study reported last week showed that cognitive decline begins much earlier than previously thought, sometime in the mid-40’s rather than around age 60.  Any 50-something wondering, yet again, “what did I just come in here for?” could have told the researchers that.  The study followed 7500 adults from age 45 to 70.  They were tested for memory, vocabulary, hearing and vision 3 times over 10 years.  While all scores dropped, the drop was for the older subjects.   For example, reasoning skills declined about 4% for men 45-49 years, and almost 10% for the 65 to 70 year age group.

The study didn’t examine other health measurements and compare those to cognitive decline, such as obesity, diet, nutritional status, exercise and heart health, although the study authors note that “what’s good for the heart is good for the head.”  Hypertension, heart disease, obesity and diabetes are all linked to increased brain changes linked to dementia.  Another study reported last week did look at several nutritional factors, and not just reported dietary intakes.  They measured actual blood levels of factors like trans fats and omega-3 in elderly subjects.  Results: distinctive patterns of nutritional biomarkers that predicted cognitive function and brain volume.  One characteristic of Alzheimers is brain shrinkage, and a high level of trans fats was associated with smaller brain volume.  Whether the trans fats themselves cause the shrinkage, or are markers for a poor diet of highly processed foods isn’t known.

High levels of B vitamins, vitamins C, D and E and omega-3 fats were associated with positive outcomes: higher test results and larger brain volume.  Information on whether these people took supplements or just ate good diets isn’t available.  Another study published late last year did evaluate supplementation and brain function in elderly people, but only used folic acid and vitamin B12.  Elderly people can have difficulty absorbing B12 with age, and folic acid intake depends on eating plenty of dark colored vegetables and fruits.  The supplementation levels in this study weren’t dramatic: just the recommended RDI for folic acid and a slightly higher dose of B12.  The subjects were tested after 2 years on either the vitamins or a placebo.  Results showed the vitamins were related to some improvement in cognitive scores, but no clear improvement in memory, attention or other measurements.  The problem with a study like this is that supplement just one of two nutrients isn’t likely to create remarkable results, since brain function depends on so many other nutrients that may still have been lacking.  It’s also not clear what the nutritional status of the subjects was before the study.

The main point is this: nutrition and lifestyle affect brain health, and the effect starts early.  If you have a terrible diet, it’s going to be hard to fix the problems later, at age 60 or older.  The better plan is to prevent problems from developing as much as possible by eating well and exercising from a young age.


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