Category Archives: cognition

Omega 3 and Depression in the Elderly

Chances are you have already heard of omegas, especially if you are health conscious or have read previous posts on this blog. The mighty essential fatty acids omega 3 and 6 are power houses of energy and also have a fantastic range of health benefits which covers the whole body (from head to toe).

Awareness of these omegas (which have to be ingested as the body cannot make them – hence the term “essential” fatty acids) is fast increasing in the nutrition world and they are already celebrated for their anti-inflammatory effects. They also benefit our cardiovascular health, for example they help to reduce risks of high cholesterol, hypertension and diabetes, as well as playing a large role in the function of our central nervous system and possessing growth and development properties.

Fish and Flax Seed Oil Capsules
Fish or Flax Seed Oil Supplements may help increase your intake of essential fatty acids, specifically Omega 3.

However, our 21st century diets have created a reduced ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 (meaning we are consuming more foods such as olive oil, peanuts, sunflower seeds, bacon and margarine and less sardines, salmon, flax seeds and walnuts) which has disturbed the omega balance and leaves many of us deficient in omega 3.

A research paper published in the the Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging in 2011 (1) has highlighted this decrease in the level of omega 3 in our diets and related it to the decline of our mental health. More specifically, the paper discusses the link between this dietary change and higher levels of depression as omega 3 deficiency can cause abnormal neurotransmitter activity. The hormones serotonin and dopamine are affected by this disturbance and these play a large role in the control and stability of our mind, cognition, mood, personality and overall mental state. Hence Omega 3 deficiency could leave us at risk of cognitive health problems.

The research paper (1) focuses on the elderly, who universally have concerns over independence, social life and functional decline which can all influence the onset of depression in the individual. Conversely, depression can also cause these concerns to become substantially worse and depression is associated with a higher mortality rate in the elderly compared with those that are not depressed. This highlights how important and prevalent this issue is for this age group.

The study supplemented depressed elderly women aged between 65-95 years who were residents of a care home with 2.5g/day of omega 3 or a placebo for 8 weeks. The researchers investigated the effects of supplementation on depressive symptoms measured by Geriatric Depression Scale (GDS). After the 8 weeks of supplementation the authors reported that those who were supplemented with omega 3 had significant reductions in their GDS scores, while the placebo group did not experience such a reduction. It could be that these individuals were deficient in omega 3 and this explains why supplementing their diets caused such an improvement in their depressive states. These findings have fantastic potential for the prevention and improvement of such cognitive disturbances in all age groups including the elderly, and shows that it is never too late to try to improve health.

If you don’t eat more than 2 portions of oily fish per week (such as sardines and salmon) or include plenty of flax and pumpkin seeds in your diet then you may like to consider trying a fish oil or flax seed supplement to increase your omega 3 intake. You should always consult your Health Advisor or GP before starting any new supplement regimen.

Written by Lauren Foster

(1) RONDANELLI, M., GIACOSA, A., OPIZZI, A., PELUCCHI, C., LA VECCHIA, C., MONTORFANO, G., NEGRONI, M., BERRA, B., POLITI, P. & RIZZO, A.M. (2011). Long chain omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation in the treatment of elderly depression.The Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging, 15, 1, 37-44.


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

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.


Choline: The Brain Food

A new study conducted at the Boston University School of Medicine suggests that the nutrient choline may improve cognitive function in healthy adults.

Choline is a precursor to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which plays a part in memory and other cognitive functions. Low acetylcholine levels are linked with Alzheimer’s.

A group of 1391 healthy (dementia-free) adults completed a food-frequency questionnaire administered from 1991 to 1995 and at a later date from 1998 to 2001. Each adult underwent cognitive tests and brain scans (MRI) at the later date. The tests measured factors such as verbal and visual memory. The brain scan also measured white matter hyperintesity (WMHI) – changes in the brain’s blood vessels that can predict conditions such as dementia and stroke.

Broccoli is high in Choline
Broccoli is a well known "super food" and is also high in Choline which may be good for brain health

The researchers used the adults’ food questionnaires to determine whether dietary choline intake had an effect on brain function. The results found that adults whose choline intake was highest did better on tests of memory. Brain scans in this group of adults were also less likely to show areas of WMHI, indicating a decreased risk of dementia or stroke.

The differences in test performance were small. “As far as your day-to-day functioning, it would not be an appreciable difference,” says senior researched Rhoda Au. However, she added, the findings suggest that people with lower choline intakes were more likely to be on a “pathway” toward mental decline than their counterparts with higher intakes.

We cannot yet say for certain that choline in itself protects memory or wards off unhealthy brain changes. One possibility, Au noted, is that some other nutrients present along with choline are responsible. The study took into account factors such as calorie intake, fat intake, and levels of nutrients such as Vitamins B6 and B12. Even after adjustments were made for these factors, choline was still linked to improved test performance. However, further human studies would be needed to back up these research finding.

It is generally recommended that men require 550 milligrams of choline per day, while women should get 425 milligrams. Several studies have found that generally choline intake in adults does not meet these requirements (2,3). To ensure an adequate supply of choline, you should ensure that your daily diet includes sources of choline such as salt-water fish, eggs, liver, chicken, beef, peanut butter, milk, broccoli and certain legumes, including soy and kidney beans. The supplement soy lecithin is also a good source.


Written by Nadia Mason, BSc MBANT NTCC CNHC

(1.) Poly C, Massaro JM, Seshadri S, Wolf PA, Cho E, Krall E, Jacques PF, Au R. The relation of dietary choline to cognitive performance and white-matter hyperintensity in the Framingham Offspring Cohort Am J Clin Nutr December 2011 vol. 94 no. 6 1584-1591

(2.) Bidulescu A, Chambless LE, Siega-Riz AM, Zeisel SH, Heiss G (2009). “Repeatability and measurement error in the assessment of choline and betaine dietary intake: the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) study”. Nutrition Journal 8 (1): 14.

(3.) Bidulescu A, Chambless LE, Siega-Riz AM, Zeisel SH, Heiss G. Usual choline and betaine dietary intake and incident coronary heart disease: the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) Study. BMC Cardiovascular Disorders 2007, 7:20


More evidence points toward the importance of vitamin B12 to protect against Alzheimer’s disease

In November  I mentioned a study which found that supplemental B vitamins which lowered homocysteine levels in the body might be useful to help elderly individuals with mild cognitive [mental function] impairment.  A recent study (1) has found that Vitamin B12 may help protect against Alzheimer’s disease.  The results of the research suggests that elderly individuals with more of the active part of the vitamin B12 in their blood have a lower risk of developing the disease.  However, the findings don’t necessarily mean that taking B vitamin supplements will stave off mental decline.

To recap on homocysteine:

Homocysteine is produced when the amino acid (the building blocks of protein) methionine is broken down in the body.  Normal levels of homocysteine are important to help build and maintain body tissues, however elevated concentrations in the blood can be harmful and have been associated with an increased risk of heart disease and other disorders.  At normal levels homocystein can be converted in the body into a harmless substance called cystanthionine.  The conversion of homocysteine into this harmless substance depends upon various B vitamins  (B6, B12 and folic acid).  Having good levels of these B vitamins appears to be a very good way of preventing high homocysteine levels and low levels of B vitamins have been associated with raised homocysteine levels. 

The study (1)was set up in order to examine the relationship between blood serum levels of homocysteine and holotranscobalamin (holoTC), the active part of vitamin B12, and risk of incident Alzheimer disease in a sample of community-dwelling elderly.  The research involved over 250 individuals aged between 65 and 79 years old who were free of dementia.  The participants were followed-up for seven years and any cases of Alzheimer’s disease were recorded.   The study scientists then looked to see if there was any association between the serum homocysteine levels, Vitamin B12 levels and Alzheimer’s disease.  The study found that for each micromolar (1 µmol/L) increase in the concentration of homocysteine, the risk of Alzheimer’s disease increased by 16%, whereas each picomolar (1 pmol/L) increase in concentration of the active form of vitamin B12 reduced risk by 2%. The results stayed the same after taking into account other factors, such as age, gender, education, smoking status, blood pressure, stroke and body mass index. The addition of folate did not appear to raise or lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.  From the results the authors conclude “This study suggests that both tHcy [homocysteine] and holoTC [vitamin B12] may be involved in the development of AD [Alzheimer’s disease]. The tHcy–AD link may be partly explained by serum holoTC. The role of holoTC in AD should be further investigated(1)

In a press release Babak Hooshmand, one of the study scientists, said (2) “Our findings show the need for further research on the role of vitamin B12 as a marker for identifying people who are at increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease,” “Low levels of vitamin B12 are surprisingly common in the elderly. However, the few studies that have investigated the usefulness of vitamin B12 supplements to reduce the risk of memory loss have had mixed results.


The findings of this trial are very interesting but further large-scale research is needed in order to test whether  vitamin B12 supplements can be recommended as a suitable treatment for the prevention of cognitive decline and dementia.   Dr Hooshmand said in the press release “More research is needed to confirm these findings before vitamin B12 should be used solely as a supplement to help protect memory,”

Vitamin B12 is found mainly in meat, fish and poultry.  Eggs and cheese also contain B12 as does brewer’s yeast.  Many vegetarians and vegans have very low intakes of this vital nutrient and may wish to consider a multi-B vitamin supplement.  Folic acid is found in beans, green vegetables and wholegrains.  Vitamin B6 is found in foods like potatoes, bananas, beans and chickpeas, avocados, fish and poultry.  Supplements should never be seen as an alternative to a healthy diet.  If you wish to investigate the option of taking B vitamins it is best to discuss this with your medical doctor first.   


(1) B. Hooshmand B et al.  2010.  Homocysteine and holotranscobalamin and the risk of Alzheimer disease.  A longitudinal study.   NEUROLOGY 2010;75:1408-1414

(2) Press Release.  American Academy of Neurology (2010, October 19). Vitamin B12 may reduce risk of Alzheimer’s disease. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 6, 2010, from­ /releases/2010/10/101018162922.htm



Written By Ani Kowal



Study finds association between vitamin D levels and cognition

Low levels of vitamin D  in the blood have been linked to poorer mood and reduced brain function, or cognition.  Lack of the sunshine vitamin has also been implicated in Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Research in the areas of vitamin D and brain function is still building and the relationship is still not clear.  A recent study (1) aimed to assess the vitamin D status of over 350 older European individuals, aged between 55 and 87 years old, and to examine the association between vitamin D status and measures of cognitive function (brain, mental function).  These were healthy individuals.  The researchers measured the cognitive function of each participant using a well known test called the Cambridge Neuropsychological Testing Automated Battery for the measurements.  Blood serum vitamin D levels were also measured.

The researchers found (1) that 12% of the individuals had vitamin D levels less than 30 nmol/l, 36% had serum vitamin D levels less than 50 nmol/l and 64% had less than 80 nmol/l.  The researcher scientists also compared the vitamin D levels to the cognitive test scores. The results showed that the people with the higher levels of vitamin D (greater than 80 nmol/l), had significantly fewer errors on their testing than those with levels less than 50 nmol/l. 

The authors conclude that vitamin D insufficiency (levels less than 50nmol/l) is widespread in the older population of several European countries and that “Low vitamin D status was associated with a reduced capacity for spatial working memory.” (1)

Working memory is the ability to actively hold information in the mind needed to do complex tasks such as reasoning, comprehension and learning. Working memory tasks are those that require the goal oriented active monitoring or manipulation of information or behaviors in the face of interfering processes and distractions.

As mentioned previously there is currently no consensus over what the optimal levels of vitamin D in the blood are or how much daily vitamin D is required to achieve this level.  There is some agreement that levels need to be at lease 50nmol/l for optimal health.  Most vitamin D is made by the body from the action of sunlight on the skin.  Very small amounts of vitamin D can be found in foods such as eggs and oily fish e.g. salmon, mackerel and sardines.  With regards supplements, some experts recommend around 2000iu vitamin D daily with others calling for higher doses.  Always check with your medical doctor prior to taking any supplements.


(1)Seamans KM et al.  2010.  Vitamin D status and measures of cognitive function in healthy older European adults.   European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.  64, 1172-1178.  doi:10.1038/ejcn.2010.117


Written by Ani Kowal


Brain function may be protected by walking

A study (1) has found that walking at least six miles (cumulatively) a week may help protect elderly individuals from age-related ‘brain shrinkage’ (loss of brain grey matter).  In May last year I wrote about a study which found that walking might help protect women against strokes and I have previously written about the importance of exercise in protecting the brain during ageing  


As we age brain size begins to shrink and this may lead to memory problems, or cognition (brain function) issues and could be related to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.  The current study included almost 300 individuals who were asked to keep track of how far they walked each week.  After 9 years the researchers scanned the brains of the participants in order to measure brain volume.  After another 4 years (13 years total) the participants were tested for cognitive impairment or dementia.


The results showed that those people who walked at least six miles weekly had less age related brain shrinkage compared to those who walked less than six miles a week.  Greater physical activity predicted greater brain volumes.  Those who walked around six to nine miles a week halved their risk of developing memory problems.  The authors of the study conclude that “Greater amounts of walking are associated with greater gray matter volume, which is in turn associated with a reduced risk of cognitive impairment

The study paves the way for further research in the area of physical activity for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease prevention.  Any efforts to help reduce the risks of such conditions would be well received.  Currently there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease which affects more than 26 million people globally.

Walking is something that can be incorporated into daily life with minimal planning and effort.  If you rarely walk then beginning with just 15minutes a day is a great start.  If you find that your motivation wanes then perhaps you could see if a friend is interested in walking with you once or twice a week.  A short walk during your lunch-break at work might also help you feel refreshed for the afternoon.  Getting off the bus a stop early or parking at the furthest end if that car-park are also ways to clock up the miles.  

(1)Erickson KI et al.  2010.  Physical activity predicts gray matter volume in late adulthood.  The Cardiovascular Health Study.  Neurology.  75:1415-1422

Written by Ani Kowal


A plant rich diet is associated with better brain function

A healthy diet rich in fruit and vegetables has been previously linked to the prevention of many chronic diseases from heart disease to cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.  A study published in the British Journal of Nutrition (1) has found that “In the elderly, a diet rich in plant foods is associated with better performance in several cognitive abilities”. 

The (1) study aimed to examine the relationship between intakes of different plant foods and cognitive (mental function) performance in elderly individuals.  The study involved over 2000 elderly people aged between 70 and 74 years old.  The individuals completed a number of cognitive tests (including Kendrick Object Learning Test, Trail Making Test – part A, modified versions of the Digit Symbol Test, Block Design, Mini-Mental State Examination and Controlled Oral Word Association Test) and were also asked to complete a detailed food frequency questionnaire to asses their dietary habits.

Those individuals who had the highest intakes of vegetables, fruits, mushrooms and grain products performed significantly better in the cognitive tests when compared to those individuals with very low intakes or no intakes (1).   The associations were strongest between cognitive function and combined intakes of fruits and vegetables – the association was also ‘dose dependent’ i.e. the more fruit and vegetables consumed the higher the scores in cognitive function.  This dose-dependent relationship held true up to about 500g of fruit and vegetables per day, after that a plateau was reached where further intakes did not significantly increase cognitive function scores.  The dose-related increase of intakes of grain products and potatoes reached a plateau at about 100–150 g/d.  For specific individual plant foods, the positive cognitive associations of carrots, cruciferous vegetables, citrus fruits and high-fibre bread were most pronounced (1).  There was a negative association between cognition and white bread.

Again this study highlights the importance of healthy eating for optimal brain function.  Eating a diet rich in plant foods and low in processed and refined foods can impact so many areas of health.  Further research would be required in order to elucidate the reasons behind such associations.  Plant foods are rich in vitamins, minerals and bioflavonoids (bioactive plant chemicals) all of which may be contributing to better brain function.

(1)Eha Nurk E et al.  2010.  Cognitive performance among the elderly in relation to the intake of plant foods. The Hordaland Health Study.   British Journal of Nutrition.  104: 1190-1201

Written by Ani Kowal


DHA supplementation may protect the ageing brain

 Docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, is a long chain omega 3 fatty acid naturally found in oily fish such as mackerel, trout, sardines and salmon.  The brain contains a high proportion of DHA and, as you will see from my past blog posts, omega 3 fats have been linked to brain benefits including protection from depression and dementia and better mental function, or cognition.  It is known that DHA plays an important role in neural function and that decreases in blood plasma levels of DHA are associated with cognitive decline in  healthy elderly adults and in those with Alzheimer’s disease.  Until now there has been very little investigation into the potential benefits of DHA supplementation in age-related cognitive decline.

A recently study (1) published in the Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association has found that taking DHA supplements in older age may improve memory and learning (improve cognition) in those individuals with mild cognitive impairments.  The study was a well designed randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled study which looked to evaluate the effects of DHA supplementation on cognitive function in healthy older adults with mild age-related cognitive decline.  The study included over 450 individuals aged 55 or over, they received either 900mg of DHA daily or a placebo supplement for 24weeks.  Various tests were used to evaluate cognitive function. 


The researchers found that after 24weeks those individuals given the DHA had better cognitive function test scores compared to those taking the placebo and DHA supplementation was also associated with improved immediate and delayed Verbal Recognition Memory scores.  In the supplemented group the blood plasma DHA levels doubled and were correlated with improved test scores. DHA was well tolerated with no reported treatment-related serious adverse events.  The authors of the study conclude that “Twenty-four week supplementation with 900 mg/d DHA improved learning and memory function in ARCD [age-related cognitive decline] and is a beneficial supplement that supports cognitive health with aging

In a press release (2) Duffy MacKay, N.D., vice president, scientific & regulatory affairs, for the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) said “The results of this study are very encouraging for those consumers concerned about maintaining memory. We know that lower DHA levels are associated with cognitive decline in healthy elderly and Alzheimer’s patients, and higher DHA levels help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease,” “Memory loss, dementia and the development of Alzheimer’s disease are prominent health concerns for older individuals. The more we learn about the valuable role DHA plays in supporting brain function, the more options aging Americans have towards managing cognitive decline.”

The findings of this study show how important early intervention with omega 3 supplements is.  This study (1) found that DHA supplementation was beneficial to the population being tested who were suffering with mild age-related cognitive decline but who were free of Alzheimer’s disease.  Another recent study (3) published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) was conducted with individuals who were diagnosed with mild-to-moderate Alzheimer’s disease.  In this study DHA supplementation did not provide a statistically significant benefit to cognitive function.  The authors of the JAMA study write “In summary, these results indicate that DHA supplementation is not useful for the population of individuals with mild to moderate Alzheimer disease,” but also add that “it remains possible that an intervention with DHA might be more effective if initiated earlier in the course of the disease in patients who do not have overt dementia.” 

In the study mentioned earlier (1) it was found that DHA was useful as an early intervention in order to PREVENT cognitive decline.  In a press release Dr MacKay said “This study reinforces the principle that consumers will reap the most benefit from their DHA supplements — and many supplements — when they are taken over time and before a health concern is imminent,” “When included as a part of a proactive health regimen that includes a well-balanced diet, regular physical activity and routine visits with a healthcare professional, dietary supplements offer an important tool to help support many systems in the body, including memory and cognitive function.

If you feel you would like to take omega 3 fish oil supplements then it is always best to check with your medical doctor first but they may well be worth considering, especially if you do not eat at least two portions of oily fish weekly.  Omega 3 fatty acids are important for the health of the brain, heart and circulatory system and have many other health benefits in addition.

(1)Yurko-Mauro K et al. Beneficial effects of docosahexaenoic acid on cognition in age-related cognitive decline. Alzheimer’s and Dementia.  6 (6): 456 DOI: 10.1016/j.jalz.2010.01.013

(2)Press release.  Council for Responsible Nutrition (2010, November 8). DHA improves memory and cognitive function in older adults, study suggests. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 9, 2010, from­ /releases/2010/11/101108151346.htm

(3) Quinn JF, et al. Docosahexaenoic Acid Supplementation and Cognitive Decline in Alzheimer Disease: A Randomized Trial. JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association.  304 (17):1903

Written by Ani Kowal


B Vitamins may be important for people with memory problems

In older individuals, especially those who are suffering from cognitive (brain function) decline, there is often an increased rate of brain wastage/shrinking (atrophy).  Previous studies have found that homocysteine is a risk factor for brain atrophy, cognitive impairment and dementia.  It is also known that blood plasma concentrations of homocysteine can be lowered by dietary administration of B vitamins.

Homocysteine is produced when the amino acid (the building blocks of protein) methionine is broken down in the body.  Normal levels of homocysteine are important to help build and maintain body tissues, however elevated concentrations in the blood can be harmful and have been associated with an increased risk of heart disease and other disorders.  At normal levels homocystein can be converted in the body into a harmless substance called cystanthionine.  The conversion of homocysteine into this harmless substance depends upon various B vitamins  (B6, B12 and folic acid).  Having good levels of these B vitamins appears to be a very good way of preventing high homocysteine levels and low levels of B vitamins have been associated with raised homocysteine levels.  The evidence, however is still controversial (please read my prevous posts on homocycteine).

A recent, two year, study (1) was carried out in order to determine whether supplementation with B vitamins that lower levels of plasma total homocysteine can slow the rate of brain atrophy in subjects with mild cognitive impairment.  High doses of folic acid (0.8mg/d), vitamins B6 (20mg/d) and B12 (0.5mg/d) were used in the study and participants, who were all over 70 years old, had brain MRI scans both at the start and end of the study in order to track brain shrinkage.   The dose of B vitamins in the supplement pills was high, they contained around 300 times the recommended daily intake of B12, four times daily advised folate levels and 15 times the recommended amount of B6.

The results of the study showed that individuals (1) receiving the B vitamins had a significantly reduced rate of brain atrophy per year when compared to those individuals taking the placebo.  Brain atrophy was related to the homocysteine levels at the start of the study: the rate of atrophy in participants with homocysteine levels greater than >13 µmol/L was 53% lower in the group receiving the B vitamins.   A greater rate of brain shrinkage was associated with a lower final cognitive test scores.   The authors conclude that “The accelerated rate of brain atrophy in elderly with mild cognitive impairment can be slowed by treatment with homocysteine-lowering B vitamins. Sixteen percent of those over 70 y old have mild cognitive impairment and half of these develop Alzheimer’s disease. Since accelerated brain atrophy is a characteristic of subjects with mild cognitive impairment who convert to Alzheimer’s disease, trials are needed to see if the same treatment will delay the development of Alzheimer’s disease”.

For more on Alzheimer’s disease please read my previous posts on the topic.  Individuals with mild cognitive impairment tend to experience problems with memory, language, or other mental functions, but not to a degree that interferes with daily life. Around half of people with mild cognitive impairment go on to develop dementia , mainly Alzheimer’s disease,  within five years of diagnosis (2).  Alzheimer’s is a mind-wasting disease for which there are few treatments and no cure, and which affects 26 million people around the world.

In a press release (2) one of the study authors,  Professor David Smith of the Department of Pharmacology at Oxford University, said “It is our hope that this simple and safe treatment will delay the development of Alzheimer’s disease in many people who suffer from mild memory problems” “Today there are about 1.5 million elderly in UK, 5 million in USA and 14 million in Europe with such memory problems”.  “These are immensely promising results but we do need to do more trials to conclude whether these particular B vitamins can slow or prevent development of Alzheimer’s. So I wouldn’t yet recommend that anyone getting a bit older and beginning to be worried about memory lapses should rush out and buy vitamin B supplements without seeing a doctor

Rebecca Wood, Chief Executive of the Alzheimer’s Research Trust said (2): “These are very important results, with B vitamins now showing a prospect of protecting some people from Alzheimer’s in old age. The strong findings must inspire an expanded trial to follow people expected to develop Alzheimer’s, and we hope for further success.  We desperately need to support research into dementia, to help avoid the massive increases of people living with the condition as the population ages. Research is the only answer to what remains the greatest medical challenge of our time

The findings of this trial are indeed very encouraging, further large-scale research is needed in order to test whether B vitamins can be recommended as a suitable treatment for the prevention of cognitive decline and dementia. 

Vitamin B6 is found in foods like potatoes, bananas, beans and chickpeas, avocados, fish and poultry.  Vitamin B12 is found mainly in meat, fish and poultry.  Eggs and cheese also contain B12 as does brewer’s yeast.  Many vegetarians and vegans have very low intakes of this vital nutrient and may wish to consider a multi-B vitamin supplement.  Folic acid is found in beans, green vegetables and wholegrains.  Supplements should never be seen as an alternative to a healthy diet and as Professor Smith said in the press release, if you wish to investigate the option of taking B vitamins it is best to discuss this with your medical doctor first.   

(1)Smith AD et al.  2010. Homocysteine-Lowering by B Vitamins Slows the Rate of Accelerated Brain Atrophy in Mild Cognitive Impairment: A Randomized Controlled Trial. PLoS ONE, 2010; 5 (9): e12244 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0012244

(2)Press Release.  University of Oxford (2010, September 12). B vitamins slow brain atrophy in people with memory problems. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 13, 2010, from­ /releases/2010/09/100912213050.htm


Written by Ani Kowal


Study finds that blueberry juice may improve memory in older adults

Previously I have investigated how healthy lifestyle and diet can impact brain function and have also looked at the importance of vegetables and fruits for a well working brain.  A very recently published preliminary small study (1) has found that blueberries may be particularly useful to memory.

The authors of the study wrote in their report (1) that there was an urgent need to develop ways to prevent dementia and protect the aging brain.  They decided to look at blueberries since laboratory studies have indicated that compounds found in these berries, mainly a group of flavonoids, or plant chemicals (phytochemicals), called anthocyanins, may be associated with improved neurone function in the brain and possibly with protection against neurodegeneration.  The anthocyanins found in blueberries, and other berries and fruits, have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

This current study (1) investigated the consumption of wild blueberry juice and memory function.  After twelve weeks individuals consuming the blueberry juice had improved memory as well as a trend toward reduced depressive symptoms when compared to a control group of individuals who did not consume blueberry juice.  The authors concluded that “The findings of this preliminary study suggest that moderate-term blueberry supplementation can confer neurocognitive [brain/memory] benefit and establish a basis for more comprehensive human trials to study preventive potential and neuronal mechanisms” “These preliminary memory findings are encouraging and suggest that consistent supplementation with blueberries may offer an approach to forestall or mitigate neurodegeneration,”

This study only looked at blueberries.  However, I would suggest that eating a wide variety of vegetables and fruits daily is important since they contain a huge array of vitamins, minerals and bioflavonoids (bioactive plant chemicals).  Many of the vitamins and bioflavonoids found in these foods act as antioxidants in the body and this may be one way that that prevent disease.  Antioxidants protect the body from attack by destructive molecules known as ‘free radicals’, they protect against something called ‘oxidative stress’ in the body.

A previous study(2) found that:
Healthy subjects of any age with a high daily intake of fruits and vegetables have higher antioxidant levels, lower levels of biomarkers of oxidative stress, and better cognitive performance than healthy subjects of any age consuming low amounts of fruits and vegetables. Modification of nutritional habits aimed at increasing intake of fruits and vegetables should be encouraged to lower prevalence of cognitive impairment in later life”. 


As mentioned in my previous posts regarding memory and brain function, linked in the first paragraph, people who live healthily over many years tend to be less likely to experience mental decline in later life.  The exciting point about most of the research is that unhealthy behaviours can be modified.  At any age we can make the choice to be a little healthier.  We can add some physical activities into the day – whether that be walking for an extra 15-30minutes a day, taking the stairs instead of the lift or doing a weekly exercise or dance class.  It is also possible to look at the diet and see if there is a way to add extra portions of vegetables and fruits into our daily meals.

Nutritional supplements can never be viewed as an alternative to healthy eating and living.  However, if you feel your diet consistently falls short of vegetables and fruits you may wish to consider taking a food-state multi-vitamin and mineral supplement which tends to provide bioflavonoids in addition to the nutrients and is easy for the body to absorb.  Another vital nutrient for the brain is Omega 3 fatty acids.   For those of you who do not eat oil fish regularly (at least twice per week) you may want to consider taking a daily fish oil supplement in order to provide omega 3 fatty acids to the body (a supplement to provide around 250-350mg of EPA and 250-350mg DHA).  For vegetarians and vegans flaxseed oil can provide the shorter chain omega 3 fatty acid, alpha linolenic acid, (a supplement providing 1000mg alpha-linolenic acid daily) can be considered.  Vegetarian EPA and DHA supplements produced from algae are also becoming increasingly available and may be worth investigating.


(1) D. Shidler et al.  2010.  Blueberry Supplementation Improves Memory in Older Adults.  J. Agric. Food Chem.  Publication Date (Web): January 4, 2010.  DOI: 10.1021/jf9029332
(2) Polidori MC et al. 2009.  High fruit and vegetable intake is positively correlated with antioxidant status and cognitive performance in healthy subjects. J Alzheimers Dis. 17:4

Written by Ani Kowal