Nutrient levels linked to brain health

I recently wrote about the reported benefits of the nutrient choline for improved memory and brain health. A new study, soon to be published in the journal Neurology, has now investigated the link between brain health and other nutrients in the diet, including Vitamins B, C, D and E, omega 3 and trans fats.

The study measured indicators of Alzheimer’s such as cognitive difficulties, brain shrinkage and memory problems. It found that nutrition could play nearly as strong a role as other factors such as age and high blood pressure.

A healthy diet rich in vitamins, antioxidants and omega 3 may help reduce brain shrinkage in older life
A healthy diet rich in vitamins, antioxidants and omega 3 may help reduce brain shrinkage in older life

The researchers tested a group of 104 elderly people with average age of 87. They then tested the blood of each participant for levels of vitamins B, C, D and E, saturated fats, carotenoids, omega-3 fatty acids, cholesterol and trans fats. Each participant also undertook mental function tests including tests of memory, language skills and spatial skills. Finally each participant underwent an MRI scan to look at the size of certain brain structures related to Alzheimer’s.

The team found that those who had higher blood levels of vitamins B, C, D and E and omega-3 fatty acids scored higher on the mental-function tests than those with lower levels of these nutrients. In contrast, those with higher levels of trans fats in their blood scored lower on these tests; they had more trouble with memory and language skills and were slower in completing the tests.

Brain scans were then carried out on 42 of the participants, and found that those with nutrient-rich diets had larger brains as well as higher test scores. Again, the scans of those with high levels of trans fats in their blood also showed more brain shrinkage.

A huge benefit of this study is that it used measurements of nutrients in people’s blood, rather than relying on individual’s food diaries and recall. As all nutritionists know, even with the best of intentions, food diaries and questionnaires can be inaccurate and misleading.

The researchers, however, didn’t distinguish between nutrient levels raised due to foods rather than supplements. It’s therefore difficult to say whether taking supplements can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s as effectively as a nutrient-rich diet.

Diets rich in fruit, vegetables, whole grains and oily fish provide good levels of vitamins and omega-3 fats. Trans fats are unhealthy ‘damaged’ fats found in margarine, some packaged food, fast food and baked goods.

“These results need to be confirmed, but obviously it is very exciting to think that people could potentially stop their brains from shrinking and keep them sharp by adjusting their diet,” said study author Gene Bowman, a professor of public health at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland.

The study team concluded that the findings suggest that nutrients work “in synergy” with one another to be protective of brain health.  Bowman concluded that “the combination of the B vitamins, the antioxidants C and E, plus vitamin D was the most favorable combination of nutrients in the blood for healthy brain aging in our population.”

Written by Nadia Mason, BSc MBANT NTCC CNHC

References
G.L. Bowman, L.C. Silbert, D. Howieson, H.H. Dodge, M.G. Traber, B. Frei, J.A. Kaye, J. Shannon, J.F. Quinn. Nutrient biomarker patterns, cognitive function, and MRI measures of brain aging. Neurology E-published ahead of print December 28, 2011.

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