4 Nutrients That Strengthen Older Brains

This section is compiled by Frank M. Painter, D.C.
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FROM:   The New York Times ~ January 2, 2012


Higher blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B, vitamin C, vitamin D and vitamin E are associated with better mental functioning in the elderly, a new study has found.

Researchers measured blood levels of these nutrients in 104 men and women, whose average age was 87. The scientists also performed brain scans to determine brain volume and administered six commonly used tests of mental functioning. The study is in the Jan. 24 issue of Neurology.

After controlling for age, sex, blood pressure, body mass index and other factors, the researchers found that people with the highest blood levels of the four vitamins scored higher on the cognitive tests and had larger brain volume than those with the lowest levels.

Omega-3 levels were linked to better cognitive functioning and to healthier blood vessels in the brain, but not to higher brain volume, which suggests that these beneficial fats may improve cognition by a different means.

Higher blood levels of trans fats, on the other hand, were significantly associated with impaired mental ability and smaller brain volume.

The lead author, Gene L. Bowman, a researcher in neurology at Oregon Health and Science University, said that the study could not determine whether taking supplements of these nutrients would decrease the risk for dementia. But he added: “What’s the harm in eating healthier? Fish, fruits, vegetables all have these nutrients, and staying away from trans fats is one key thing you can do.”

Vitamins and Good Fats May Help Your Brain

By James Gormley

“Get rid of all trans fats in your diet!” is the main takeaway message from a December 28 study on vitamins and the brain in the journal "Neurology."

According to lead author Gene Bowman ND MPH, an assistant professor of neurology at the NIA-Layton Center for Aging & Alzheimer Research at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, the study, entitled “Nutrient biomarker patterns, cognitive function, and MRI measures of brain aging,” looked at the relationship between nutrient status, cognitive function and brain health in 104 elderly participants, 62 percent of whom were women.

Utilizing eight distinct nutrient biomarker patterns (NBPs) out of 30 that were originally developed, the authors were able to see, by using psychological and cognitive tests, blood tests and nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) which participants had less brain shrinkage, or atrophy, and what these nutrient profiles suggest as to what dietary practices may be associated with better cognitive health as we age.

The nutrient biomarker pattern (NBP) was first tested and validated against food frequency questionnaire studies by Bowman and his colleagues in an earlier 2011 study which appeared in the journal, "Alzheimer’s Disease & Related Disorders."

“What we’re doing is picking up on the plasma signatures of different nutrient combinations, which will help us come up with better nutritional and public health recommendations,” said Bowman, in a December 29 phone interview.

The results indicated that those who had the highest blood (plasma) levels of vitamins B, C, D and E and omega-3 fats (good fats) did the best on cognitive tests and had the healthiest brains; those who had the most bad fat, specifically trans fat, in their blood did the worst on cognitive tests and had the least healthy brains – meaning their brains showed some initial signs of volume loss, or shrinkage, an early warning for potential dementia or Alzheimer’s disease down the road.

According to Jeffrey Blumberg PhD, director of the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston, the results of “the Bowman study are consistent with several of the studies completed by Martha Clare Morris (and her colleague, Christy Tangney).

“They are also consistent with those showing a beneficial relationship of B vitamins (especially B12) and brain volume published a couple years ago (from a British group). Similarly, observational studies have shown an inverse correlation between folate [folic acid] intake/status and risk for age-related dementias. The Physicians Health Study found beta-carotene is associated with less cognitive decline in aging. And some (but not all) studies have found a benefit of vitamin E supplementation on cognitive performance and/or rate of decline in Alzheimer’s disease.”

It is known that trans fats, which are found in deep-fried foods and as partially hydrogenated oils found in packaged snack and other processed foods, are bad. This study, however, is “the first study to look at trans fats in the context of brain health and functioning,’ added Bowman.

This study, said Bowman, was funded by the U.S. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). A future study, one that is in the works, will look at the impact of diet on cognition in people over many years or even decades, which is called a longitudinal study.

“Is all that frozen pizza really worth it?,” asked Bowman, who suggests, on the positive side, that people should consider eating more “fish, beans, citrus fruits [and] dark green leafy vegetables.”

The Abstract:

Nutrient Biomarker Patterns, Cognitive Function, and MRI Measures of Brain Aging

FROM:   Neurology. 2012 (Jan 24);   78 (4):   241–249 ~ FULL TEXT

Bowman GL, Silbert LC, Howieson D, Dodge HH, Traber MG, Frei B,
Kaye JA, Shannon J, Quinn JF.

Department of Neurology,
Oregon Health & Science University,
Portland, USA.

OBJECTIVE:   To examine the cross-sectional relationship between nutrient status and psychometric and imaging indices of brain health in dementia-free elders.

METHODS:   Thirty plasma biomarkers of diet were assayed in the Oregon Brain Aging Study cohort (n = 104). Principal component analysis constructed nutrient biomarker patterns (NBPs) and regression models assessed the relationship of these with cognitive and MRI outcomes.

RESULTS:   Mean age was 87 ± 10 years and 62% of subjects were female. Two NBPs associated with more favorable cognitive and MRI measures: one high in plasma vitamins B (B1, B2, B6, folate, and B12), C, D, and E, and another high in plasma marine omega-3 fatty acids. A third pattern characterized by high trans fat was associated with less favorable cognitive function and less total cerebral brain volume. Depression attenuated the relationship between the marine omega-3 pattern and white matter hyperintensity volume.

CONCLUSION:   Distinct nutrient biomarker patterns detected in plasma are interpretable and account for a significant degree of variance in both cognitive function and brain volume. Objective and multivariate approaches to the study of nutrition in brain health warrant further study. These findings should be confirmed in a separate population.

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