Key nutrients linked to better thinking and less brain shrinkage among elders in a novel blood-based study
by Craig Weatherby
News from Oregon adds valuable evidence to a growing set of research suggesting that key nutrients can help keep aging brains healthy.
The study is among the first to measure people’s blood levels of dozens of nutrients and compare those levels to participants’ cognitive health and brain volume.
The Oregon study links higher blood levels of omega-3s from fish (EPA and DHA) and vitamins B, C, D, and E to better performance on tests of mental acuity (thinking and memory).
Higher blood levels of omega-3s and vitamins B, C, D, and E were also linked to having less brain shrinkage. (Brain shrinkage both promotes and characterizes Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.)
In contrast, the participants who had the lowest blood levels of nutrients did the worst on mental acuity tests and showed the most brain shrinkage.
Low blood levels of the key nutrients in question suggest that a person is eating lots of “empty-calorie” foods … such as the processed, refined foods that predominate in the standard American diet.
The results of prior studies comparing people’s diets to their brain health – most of which used nutrient-intake estimates based on diet surveys – have been mixed and inconclusive.
But researchers are now using better methods to look for such links, with encouraging results. For example, see “Brain Benefits of Fish Bolstered by MRI Study”, “Fish Oil Aided Size and Health of Aging Brains”, “Fish Oil Lowers Cortisol and Body Fat Levels”, “Omega-3s Display More Brain-Mood Benefits”, and “Brain Aging: Vitamin B12 May Deter Shrinkage and Dementia”.
The new investigation from Oregon is more reliable than studies that only estimate participants’ nutrient intakes – very roughly – based on their responses to diet questionnaires.
According to co-author Maret Traber, Ph.D., “The vitamins and nutrients you get from eating a wide range of fruits, vegetables and fish can be measured in blood biomarkers. I’m a firm believer these nutrients have strong potential to protect your brain and make it work better.” (OSU 2011)
Professor Traber went on to make a timely point: “These findings are based on average people eating average American diets. If anyone right now is considering a New Year’s resolution to improve their diet, this would certainly give them another reason to eat more fruits and vegetables.” (OSU 2011)
Blood-brain study affirms value of omega-3s and key vitamins
The research was performed by scientists from Oregon Health and Science University and Oregon State University, and was funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (Bowman GL et al. 2011).
Their novel study involved 104 elders with no strong risk factors for poor memory or mental acuity, whose average age was 87.
The Oregon team measured blood levels of 30 different nutrients, and 42 participants also underwent MRI scans to measure their brain volume.
The use of blood analysis avoided the problems inherent in relying on people’s flawed recollection of what they ate. The best cognitive performance and biggest brain volumes were associated with two dietary patterns:
- High levels of vitamins B, C, D, and E
- High levels of omega-3s (EPA and DHA) from seafood
The Oregon group’s analysis took into account other factors that affect brain health and volume, such as lifestyle, age, gender, education, smoking, drinking, blood pressure, cardiovascular health, body mass index, and many others.
As expected, much of the variation in the participants’ mental performance depended on these factors … but the levels of these key nutrients measured in participants’ blood accounted for 17 percent of the thinking and memory scores and 37 percent of the variation in brain size.
And poor cognitive performance on the mental tests was associated with a higher intake of omega-6 fats – regular or “trans” form – which mostly come from certain common vegetable oils (corn, soy, safflower, sunflower, cottonseed), and the fried foods, margarine, fast foods, and the many nutrient-poor packaged or prepared foods made with them.
That link fits with other evidence that the excess of omega-6 fatty acids in the standard American diet – which abound in certain common vegetable oils (corn, soy, safflower, sunflower, cottonseed) and the foods made with them – undermines brain health and volume.
The American diet’s characteristic “omega imbalance” – far too much omega-6 fat, and not enough omega-3 fat – reduces the body’s absorption of omega-3s from plant foods (leafy greens, canola oil, flaxseed), seafood, and fish oil (Conklin SM, Manuck SB, Yao JK et al. 2007; Conklin SM et al. 2010)
Most foods offered at VitalChoice.com bear the innovative Omega 3/6 Balance Scores developed by leading fatty acids researcher Professor William E. Lands, Ph.D.
These scores reflect the proportion of omega-3 to omega-6 fats each food contains, with positive numbers (e.g., +30) indicating that a food has more omega-3s than omega-6s.
For more information on this health issue and our Balance Scores, click here.
Ahmad A, Momenan R, van Gelderen P, Moriguchi T, Greiner RS, Salem N Jr. Gray and white matter brain volume in aged rats raised on n-3 fatty acid deficient diets. Nutr Neurosci. 2004 Feb;7(1):13-20.
Bowman GL et al. Nutrient biomarker patterns, cognitive function, and MRI measures of brain aging. Neurology WNL.0b013e3182436598; published ahead of print December 28, 2011
Conklin SM, Runyan CA, Leonard S, Reddy RD, Muldoon MF, Yao JK. Age-related changes of n-3 and n-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids in the anterior cingulate cortex of individuals with major depressive disorder. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2010 Feb-Mar;82(2-3):111-9. Epub 2010 Jan 8.
Conklin SM, Manuck SB, Yao JK, Flory JD, Hibbeln JR, Muldoon MF. High omega-6 and low omega-3 fatty acids are associated with depressive symptoms and neuroticism. Psychosom Med. 2007 Dec;69(9):932-4. Epub 2007 Nov 8.
Conklin SM, Gianaros PJ, Brown SM, Yao JK, Hariri AR, Manuck SB, Muldoon MF. Long-chain omega-3 fatty acid intake is associated positively with corticolimbic gray matter volume in healthy adults. Neurosci Lett. 2007 Jun 29;421(3):209-12. Epub 2007 Jun 2.
Conklin SM, Gianaros PJ, Hariri AR et al. Dietary intake of the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids is associated with increased grey matter volume in the perigenual cingulated cortex. Abstract 1669. American Psychosomatic Society 65th Annual Meeting. Budapest, Hungary – March 7-10, 2007. Accessed online March 8, 2007 at http://www.psychosomatic.org/events/2007APSabstractsforjournal.pdf
Erickson KI, Suever BL, Prakash RS, Colcombe SJ, McAuley E, Kramer AF. Greater intake of vitamins B6 and B12 spares gray matter in healthy elderly: a voxel-based morphometry study. Brain Res. 2008 Mar 14;1199:20-6. Epub 2008 Jan 26.
Oregon State University (OSU). Diet, nutrient levels linked to cognitive ability, brain shrinkage. December 28, 2011. Accessed at http://oregonstate.edu/ua/ncs/archives/2011/dec/diet-nutrient-levels-linked-cognitive-ability-brain-shrinkage