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Can Good Nutrition Protect the Brain?

In-home caregiver preparing a delicious meal

We have long known that eating a healthy diet promotes overall good health, which in turn supports brain health. With the aging of the baby boomers predicted to result in an "Alzheimer’s epidemic," many researchers are focusing on the effects of specific nutrients that may protect against memory loss.

This isn’t as simple as it might sound. It can be surprisingly difficult to determine nutrition levels. People are notoriously inaccurate when it comes to reporting what they eat. Even when study participants keep a food diary or live in a setting where food intake can be monitored, it can still be challenging to get an accurate picture of an individual’s actual nutrient levels. Our bodies absorb nutrients at different rates. Seniors may have health issues that limit nutrient absorption, such as digestive problems, chronic diseases and even the effects of some medications. This may mean that an older adult who consumes the recommended amount of a certain nutrient could be absorbing only a fraction of the substance. This challenge to senior nutrition also poses a challenge to research on the topic.

Therefore, in three recent studies appearing in the official scientific journal of the American Academy of Neurology, researchers bypassed food diaries and questionnaires in order to gain a more accurate picture of the effect of nutrition on brain health.

1. Good Nutrition and Brain Size. Scientists from Oregon Health and Science University and Oregon State University found that elderly people with higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins B, C, D and E had less brain shrinkage and performed better on mental acuity tests, while junk food diets produced the opposite result. The Oregon researchers used blood tests to precisely measure the level of these nutrients in the bodies of elderly subject participants, who averaged age 87. Along with mental acuity tests, subjects received MRI scans to measure their brain volume. According to study author Gene Bowman of OHSU, "These results need to be confirmed, but obviously it’s very exciting to think that people could potentially stop their brains from shrinking and keep them sharp by adjusting their diet."

2. Vitamin B12 Deficiency Is Harmful to the Brain. Vitamin B12 deficiency can cause Alzheimer’s-like symptoms in seniors; it is one of the conditions doctors must rule out before making a diagnosis of the disease. A shortage of this important nutrient may even cause permanent damage to the brain. Researchers from Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center recently performed a sophisticated type of blood test focused specifically on vitamin B12 deficiency, showing that older people with lower levels of vitamin B12 are likely to have lower brain volume and more problems with their thinking skills. Christine Tangney, Ph.D., said, "Our findings lend support for the contention that poor vitamin B12 status is a potential risk factor for brain atrophy and may contribute to cognitive impairment."

3. Omega-3 Slows Brain Aging. A third study pinpoints the connection between omega-3 fatty acids and brain health. Most people know that omega-3 fatty acids, primarily found in fish, are good for the heart, and research is demonstrating that these substances likewise benefit the brain. Researchers from University of California at Los Angeles tested the omega-3 levels in the red blood cells of study participants, who also underwent MRI brain scans and tests of their memory, problem-solving skills and abstract thinking. Study author Dr. Zaldy Tan reports, "People with lower blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids had lower brain volumes that were equivalent to about two years of structural brain aging."

What Do These Studies Mean and What Should Seniors Do?

Maret Traber, principal investigator for the Oregon State University study, said, "I’m a firm believer these nutrients have strong potential to protect your brain and make it work better." Many other researchers agree. These three studies are a good reminder that seniors should continue to eat a well-balanced diet, including foods that are rich in brain-protecting nutrients: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, poultry, fish, low-fat or fat-free milk, eggs, nuts and beans.

The researchers also emphasize the harmful effects of trans fats. These unhealthy fats are found in many packaged and frozen foods, baked goods and margarine spreads. Fortunately, food manufacturers and restaurant companies are responding to rising concern about these dangerous fats, replacing them with healthier choices. Check package labels before purchasing prepared foods and ask for nutritional information when you dine out.

Vitamin and mineral supplements are sometimes recommended for older adults. Talk to your healthcare provider about supplements you are taking and before adding any new supplements to your diet. Your doctor can suggest the optimum combination of nutrients, and help you avoid taking too much of certain nutrients that are toxic at high doses.

Learn More

The American Geriatrics Society recently updated Nutrition: Unique to Older Adults on their Health in Aging consumer information website.    

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Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned, franchised providers of in-home care services. 


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