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There are a lot of perks to growing older (wisdom! confidence! perspective!), however, the little brain blips you may start to experience aren’t so fun, and maybe even a little worrisome. But some forgetfulness, slower recall, and decline in focus and attention is perfectly normal, and there are plenty of ways to boost your brain power via diet and supplementation with targeted nutrients so those little blips stay, well, little.
Scientists used to think that neurons—the specific type of brain cells that allow us to think, learn, remember, make decisions, see, smell, taste, feel, and move—increasingly die as we age, but modern research has debunked that theory. According to John Morrison, PhD, professor of neurology at University of California Davis, if you age without a neurodegenerative disease such as dementia, Alzheimer’s, or Parkinson’s, “you don’t lose a significant number of neurons.”1 In fact, research has found that our neurons decline very little with normal aging, with an estimated loss of only two to four percent in a lifetime.2 Science has also shown us that our brains have the ability to change and grow throughout our lifetimes, allowing us to continue to learn new skills and form new memories as we age.3 This is called brain plasticity, and includes the brain’s ability to grow new neurons and synapses, the points at which neurons communicate with each other.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that there are other physical changes in the brain that can lead to mental decline, including shrinking brain mass, slower communication between neurons, and increased inflammation and oxidative stress. These changes are associated with age-related declines in memory, learning, decision making, recalling names and numbers, and the ability to multitask and/or focus.
But even with these physical changes in the brain, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll experience a drastic mental decline (remember, dementia is not a normal part of the aging process; it is a neurodegenerative disease). Outside factors—including nutrition and certain supplements—have a strong influence on how well our brains age, and can combat those physical changes, helping to reduce shrinkage, promote brain plasticity, and reduce inflammation and oxidative damage.
It should come as no surprise that what we eat has a profound effect on how well our brains age, and the typical Western diet, full of highly processed grains, refined vegetable oils, and sugar is not brain friendly. In fact, blood sugar that consistently stays at the high end of normal has been associated with increased brain shrinkage and reduced neurogenesis, or the creation of new neurons, which plays a critical role in brain plasticity.4 5 What to eat then? Most of the research on diet and cognition has focused on the Mediterranean diet and shows that this diet, full of vegetables, extra virgin olive oil, legumes, whole grains, nuts, spices, fish, and small to moderate amounts of grass-fed meats and dairy products and free-range eggs, can’t be beat when it comes to supporting healthy cognition. These foods provide the antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats that reduce inflammation and oxidative stress, improve communication between neurons, encourage neuronal growth, and generally promote the overall health and function of the brain.
These supplements have been well-researched when it comes to the aging brain, and they run the gamut, from reducing inflammation and oxidative stress to supporting plasticity, neurogenesis, and minimizing brain shrinkage. For most of them we don’t, or can’t, get optimal amounts of from food alone.
The omega-3 fats from fish oil are essential for a healthy brain. Period. Healthy neurons contain high amounts of DHA, which keeps these cells flexible and fluid, allowing for information to easily flow from one cell to another—and the better information flows, the better our mood, memory, concentration, and learning are. Both EPA and DHA support neurogenesis, reduce oxidative damage and inflammation in the brain, and DHA has been shown to increase brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that plays a critical role in brain plasticity, increasing the growth of new neurons and synapses.6 7 8 9 Higher blood levels of EPA and DHA have also been correlated with larger brain and hippocampal volume (the hippocampus is the part of the brain primarily involved in memory).10
One year-long, placebo-controlled study found that a daily supplement containing 430 mg of DHA and 150 mg of EPA significantly improved short-term and working memory (important for reasoning and decision making) and verbal memory in elderly subjects with mild cognitive impairment.11 The majority of us don’t eat nearly enough cold-water, fatty fish to obtain optimal amounts of these important fats, making this a top supplement to add to your routine. To optimize brain health, aim for 3 grams of fish oil daily.
This family of vitamins is foundational for healthy brain function—without the B vitamins, mental performance, brain cell communication, and overall brain function crashes. B1 has been known for decades to influence brain function, with a B1 deficiency leading to changes in the brain similar to those found in Alzheimer’s. B1 is required for our brain cells to use glucose for energy, and low levels have been linked to reduced neurogenesis (the creation of new neurons).12 Low dietary intakes of the B vitamins have been associated with cognitive decline,13 while an increased intake of B vitamins has been shown to slow cognitive decline, particularly in those with elevated homocysteine, an amino acid in the blood that has been directly linked to the development of cognitive impairment, dementia, and Alzheimer’s, even at moderately elevated levels.14 15 16 One study examining the effects of a daily supplement containing folic acid (800 mcg), B12 (50mcg), and B6 (20 mg) for two years in older adults with mild cognitive impairment found that the supplement significantly reduced homocysteine levels, slowed the rate of brain shrinkage, and slowed cognitive decline, particularly in those who began the study with elevated homocysteine.17
This carotenoid antioxidant is mostly known for its role in eye health, but it is also the most dominant carotenoid found in the brain, and there is a strong relationship between how well the brain ages and the amount of lutein it contains. Lutein helps the brain process information faster, with less energy, essentially helping your brain work smarter, not harder. Recent research investigating lutein’s role in the brain in adults over the age of 50 found that high levels of lutein were associated with better scores in several measures of cognitive function, including memory and executive function, which includes reasoning and judgement, planning, focus, and regulating emotions.18 Lutein is particularly important for protecting fats in the brain, like DHA, from oxidative damage.19 It also provides anti-inflammatory protection to brain cells, enhances blood flow to the brain, improves communication between neurons (remember, slower communication between neurons is one of the physical changes that happens in the aging brain), and has been shown to significantly increase BDNF. Doses used in studies range from 12 to 20 mg daily.20 21 22
An inflamed brain is a poorly functioning brain, but curcumin has the power to tame that inflammation. Inflammation in the brain reduces BDNF levels, impairs neurogenesis, and can drive brain cell death and brain shrinkage.23 Curcumin, the main active compound found in the spice turmeric, has been well-researched for its powerful anti-inflammatory effects, and a growing body of research is showing that it is also neuroprotective. One trial examining the effect of short- and long-term supplementation with 400 mg of curcumin in adults age 60-85 found that just one hour after supplementation, curcumin significantly improved performance on sustained attention and working memory tasks compared to the placebo. Working memory and general mood (qualified by positive changes in fatigue, calmness, and “contentedness”) were significantly improved following four weeks of supplementation.24 In addition to being anti-inflammatory, curcumin helps regulate levels of important neurotransmitters—brain communication chemicals—that are involved in learning, memory, mood, and behavior; reduces oxidative damage; increases BDNF; and triggers autophagy, the body’s process of clearing out damaged and aging brain cells and other debris that impairs brain function (think of it as your brain’s way of “cleaning house”). This process is critical for brain health, and any glitches in this system can lead to neurodegeneration.25 26 27 28
Long valued to support cognition and memory, and with a history of safe use, the herb ginkgo biloba continues to impress. A recent study compared Alzheimer’s patients taking 150 mg of ginkgo biloba extract three times a day with patients taking the drug donepezil, which is commonly used to improve mental clarity and functioning in patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. After six months, the ginkgo biloba group had similar benefits to donepezil for improvements in cognitive, behavioral, psychological, and functioning scores.29
The following nutrients have also been researched for their positive effects on the brain: Lion’s mane mushroom has been found to induce the production of nerve growth factor (NGF), a family of proteins responsible for the maintenance, survival, and regeneration of neurons. Research has shown that it improves mild cognitive impairment in older adults (1,000 mg/three times daily).30 31 32 Phosphatidylserine (PS) is a type of fat that is concentrated in the brain where it maintains the structural integrity of neurons and enhances communication between neurons. Supplementation with PS (300-800 mg/day) has been shown to support cognitive function, including short- and long-term memory, learning and recall, focus and concentration, problem solving, and language skills.33 34 35 And last but not least, the Ayurvedic herb bacopa has been studied for its effect on cognition and researchers have discovered that compounds in the herb enhance communication between nerves, help regenerate synapses, repair damaged neurons, and support neurogenesis. In one study, supplementation with 300 mg of bacopa daily resulted in significant improvement in memory recall, information retention, and verbal learning (it also improved feelings of wellbeing and reduced depression and anxiety scores).36 37 38
A drastic decline in cognitive function does not have to be a normal part of aging. Reducing inflammation and oxidation in the brain and promoting neurogenesis and brain plasticity are master keys to unlocking brain health throughout our lifetimes, and research is showing that certain nutrients can improve all of these factors. Take action now to keep your brain forever young!