Wisdom may come with age, but with each passing year many of us will have the reasonable worry of eventually losing our thinking skills and memory. Can nutrition guard the mind and keep it sharp with age?
A new study published in Neurology suggests that, yes, a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids and in vitamins C, D, E, and B vitamins can slow down the brain’s gradual reduction in size that is associated with learning and memory problems.
A diet high in trans fat, conversely, could worsen brain shrinkage. Trans fats effects on the brain are likely because of their harm to cardiovascular health.
The study evaluated blood nutrient levels of 104 healthy participants with an average age of 87, who had few risk factors related to Alzheimer’s disease. The subjects took tests for memory and thinking skills. The researchers also measured brain volume on 42 of the subjects using MRI scans.
The nutrient biomarkers detected in the plasma suggest that it accounted for a “significant degree” of the variance in brain volume and cognitive function, said Gene Bowman, ND, MPH, of Oregon Health & Science University in Portland and a member of the American Academy of Neurology.
Other variables included age, years of education, and high blood pressure.
“Obviously it is very exciting to think that people could potentially stop their brains from shrinking and keep them sharp by adjusting their diet,” Bowman said.
Omega-3s, vitamins, and trans fats
The omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is the predominant structural fatty acid in the brain. Most of DHA in the brain is acquired in infancy, but previous studies suggest that more DHA in the diet or through supplementation can maintain brain tissue in adulthood.
Several studies have found relationships between vitamins C, D, and E with protecting the brain from neurological decline. B vitamins have a special role in regulating levels of homocysteine, too much of which can harm the brain. Controlled trials have found supplementation with multivitamins and B vitamins support memory and thinking skills.
Small amounts of trans fats are found naturally in several foods, but are represented in the diet more heavily in the form of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. These are often included in packaged, fast, or fried foods such cookies, frozen pizza, and French fries.
Reference: Bowman GL, Silbert LC, Howieson D et al. Nutrient biomarker patterns, cognitive function, and MRI measures of brain aging. Neurology 2011. dio: Neurology WNL.0b013e3182436598