Along with a growing aged population comes the desire to preserve healthy cognitive function throughout one’s lifespan. An interdisciplinary field of research known as nutritional cognitive neuroscience investigates the impact of nutrition on cognition and brain health with aging. This research demonstrates that many aspects of nutrition, from entire diets to specific nutrients, can affect brain structure and function. Emerging evidence indicates that optimal nutrition may potentially preserve cognitive function, slow aging progression and reduce the incidence of debilitating diseases in healthy aging populations. Recent advances in the study of the beneficial effects of plasma levels of nutrient biomarkers on the aging brain aim to establish effective nutritional interventions to promote healthy brain aging.
Biomarkers provide measures of nutritional status of bioactive chemicals in foods, which can indicate a healthy level of nutrients, as well as nutrient deficiencies. Epidemiological studies have identified approximately 100 biomarkers that correlate with dietary intake, such as vitamins, minerals, carotenoids, polyphenols, fatty acids, amino acids, metabolites and enzymes. These biomarkers can be used to estimate the intake of a wide range of dietary components, including overall fruit and vegetable intake, whole grains, salmon, red meat, tea and wine, as well as food additives and contaminants.
In one study, reported in the March 2019 edition of Neurolmage, scientists at the University of Illinois examined 32 key nutrients present in significant amounts in the Mediterranean diet. Shown in previous studies to provide nutrients that confer protective effects on brain health, the Mediterranean diet is rich in vegetables, fruits, beans, legumes, whole grains, olive oil and seafood and limits red meat and sweets. The study linked higher blood levels of several key nutrients with more efficient brain connectivity and enhanced performance on cognitive tests, supporting previous research that linked better brain function in older adults who most closely followed a Mediterranean style diet.
Multiple studies have shown that adherence to the Mediterranean diet lowers the risk of developing mild cognitive impairment (MCI), as well as reduces the likelihood of progression from MCI to dementia. The University of Illinois study applied a rigorous approach to the study of diet and brain health. As opposed to relying on food intake surveys, researchers used MRI high resolution brain imaging to evaluate brain network efficiency in addition to measured blood levels of nutrients and cognitive function tests. Per leading researcher Aron Barbey, U. of I. psychology professor in the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, “Functional MRI’s can indicate the efficiency of individual brain networks, which has to do with how information is communicated within the network.”
Researchers looked at local efficiency, or how well information is shared within spatially confined brain regions, as well as global efficiency, the number of steps required to transfer information from one region to any other region in the network. Different nutrient patterns appeared to moderate the efficiency in different brain networks. The study suggests that diet and nutrition moderate the association between network efficiency and cognitive performance. The researchers found what they termed “robust” links between five nutrient biomarker patterns and better results on memory, general intelligence, and executive function tests. Nutrients in the biomarker patterns include antioxidants, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, lycopene, carotenoids, riboflavin (vitamin B2), folate (vitamin B9), vitamin B12 and vitamin D, which all appeared to work synergistically.
The U. of I. study has highlighted the potential impact of nutritional factors and individual micronutrients on brain and cognitive performance, particularly in the older population. Of particular interest are the B vitamins, folate, B12 and B6, as mild deficiencies in these vitamins are relatively common in older adults. Studies have provided evidence of an association between these B vitamins and many aspects of cognitive performance, especially in seniors. Evidence continues to mount that higher intakes and serum concentrations of folate, B6 and B12 may influence cognitive performance, as well as neurological and physiological function.
The growing and promising field of nutritional cognitive neuroscience will continue to advance our understanding of the beneficial effects of nutrition on aging brain health. Ultimately, nutritional therapies will be developed to support targeted treatment of cognitive and neurological impairments in the aging brain. In the meantime, preliminary evidence indicates the effectiveness of supplementation in enhancing cognitive performance in older adults. Along with the Mediterranean diet, regular exercise and healthy sleep, therapeutic nutritional supplements may play a protective role in brain health and have a positive impact on cognitive performance, mood and wellbeing as we enter our golden years.
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Nutritional Cognitive Neuroscience: Innovations for Healthy Brain Aging. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4893495/
Nutrients in Blood Linked to Better Cognition and Brain Connectivity in Older Adults. https://neurosciencenews.com/aging-blood-cognition-nutrients-10385/
Study links nutrient patterns in blood to better brain connectivity, cognition in older adults. https://news.illinois.edu/view/6367/730014
B Vitamins, Cognition, and Aging: A Review. https://academic.oup.com/psychsocgerontology/article/56/6/P327/610645
Does the Mediterranean Diet Impact Brain Health and Memory? https://www.verywellhealth.com/mediterranean-diet-brain-health-98428