Nutrition to maintain the brain

by Jeff Gelski
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The "Maintain Your Brain" program from the Alzheimer’s Association, Chicago, focuses on four areas: mental stimulation, exercise, diet and social connections. Dr. Elizabeth Edgerly, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and spokesperson for the program, said the diet area may be summarized in two words: Mediterranean Diet.

The Mediterranean Diet promotes consumption of fruit, vegetables, fish, cereals and olive oil. Those items and their healthy fatty acids and vitamins may be consumed for healthy brain maintenance, too, Ms. Edgerly said.

A large number of Americans may have an interest in nutrition for brain maintenance. About 10 million of the 78 million baby boomers alive today may expect to develop Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. People seeking to avoid Alzheimer’s disease would be wise to consume foods and beverages with omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants and B vitamins, Ms. Edgerly said.

Recent research has focused on the potential positive effects of omega-3 fatty acids on Alzheimer’s disease. A pre-clinical study published in the Dec. 26, 2007, issue of The Journal of Neuroscience involved docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid found in algae and fish. DHA consumption may decrease the risk of late-onset Alzheimer’s disease, which may be caused in part by a low amount of LR11, a member of the ApoE/low-density lipoprotein receptor family. DHA was shown to increase the production of LR11 in mice in the study at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Cold water fish such as salmon, tuna and mackerel contain high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, Ms. Edgerly said. Flaxseed oil is another omega-3 fatty acid source. Ms. Edgerly said it’s better to consume omega-3 fatty acids from food instead of dietary supplements.

"The general trend is, if you can get it directly from food, that’s better than a pill," she said.

Antioxidants are found in dark, green leafy vegetables such as spinach, Ms. Edgerly said, while beverages may offer another opportunity for antioxidant consumption.

"People are marketing the antioxidants in pomegranate juice, berry juices and blueberry juice because there is evidence that the antioxidants are not only good for your heart health but also your brain health," Ms. Edgerly said.

Some data indicate management of cardiovascular risk factors such as high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and being overweight may help avoid or delay cognitive decline, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

"According to the most current research, a brain-healthy diet is one that reduces the risk of heart disease and diabetes, encourages good blood flow to the brain and is low in fat and cholesterol," the association said. "Like the heart, the brain needs the right balance of nutrients, including protein and sugar, to function well."

Spinach, strawberries and almonds are examples of food that promote both good heart health and brain health, Ms. Edgerly said.

"A heart-healthy diet is kind of the beginning of a brain-healthy diet," she said.

Cocoa flavanols, which are antioxidants found in cocoa, may increase blood flow to the brain, according to research published in Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, the official journal of the International Neuropsychiatric Association. Mean blood flow velocity increased by 8% (plus or minus 4%) after one week of flavanol-rich cocoa consumption and by 10% (plus or minus 4%) after two weeks in the study involving older healthy volunteers.

"Our data suggest a promising role for regular cocoa flavanol’s consumption in the treatment of cerebrovascular ischemic syndromes, including dementias and stroke," the researchers said.

The study involved researchers from the Boston-based entities Hebrew SeniorLife, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and the Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

"This is just one more study adding to an increasing body of literature connecting regular cocoa flavanol consumption to blood flow and vascular health improvements throughout the body," said Dr. Harold Schmitz, Ph.D., chief science officer at Mars, Inc., McLean, Va. "Though more research is needed, these findings raise the possibility that flavanol-rich cocoa products could be developed to help slow brain decline in older age."

A limited amount of research shows dark chocolate consumption might support brain health, Ms. Edgerly said. A high amount of sugar in a chocolate product may have negative effects on the brain, she said. Research suggests diabetes may increase risk of Alzheimer’s disease, possibly because of increased risk of heart disease and impaired insulin function, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

"People love the red wine and dark chocolate message," Ms. Edgerly said. "We’re happy about that, but the better thing to eat probably would be spinach."

Many people like to eat meat and doing so probably gives them healthy levels of vitamin B12. A lack of vitamin B12 may cause memory problems, Ms. Edgerly said. Older adults who are cooking for themselves may have trouble consuming enough vitamin B12. Simplifying meal preparation might help them out, she said, and gave the Ensure Shakes as an example.

"Eating cereal for breakfast is in many cases a way to get B12 and folic acid," she said.

Researchers still seek to find what adequate consumption amounts of vitamin B12, antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids and other elements are needed to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. The "Maintain Your Brain" program seeks to take the latest research on brain health and put it into practical, useful information for the public, Ms. Edgerly said.

"It’s a major area of interest," she said of brain health. "Just in the last two years there has been a huge increase in food and beverages that are really marketed to people for this purpose.

Alzheimer’s disease numbers

• Seventeen per cent of the women and 9% of the men who live to be at least age 55 will develop Alzheimer’s disease in their remaining lifetime.

• The risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and dementia is higher for women because they live longer than men on average.

• Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60% to 80% of the cases of dementia.

• An estimated 5.2 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease in 2008.

• There were an estimated 411,000 new cases of Alzheimer’s disease in 2000. The number is expected to increase to 454,000 new cases a year by 2010, 615,000 new cases a year by 2030 and 959,000 new cases a year by 2050.

• The number of people age 65 and over with Alzheimer’s disease is expected to reach 7.7 million in 2030.

 • The number of people age 65 and over with Alzheimer’s disease may range from 11 million to 16 million by 2050.

 Source: Alzheimer’s Association Nutrition boosts mental performance in infants, students

Nutrition boosts mental performance in infants, students 

Studies published this year in Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, have focused on nutrition and mental performance:

Cognitive performance and omega-3 fatty acids: Supplementation with docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid, and arachidonic acid for infants that were fed human breast milk was associated with better recognition memory and higher problem-solving scores, according to a study appearing in the June issue. The study involved researchers from Norway and Sweden.

In the randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study among 141 infants, intervention of DHA and arachidonic acid started one week after birth and lasted until discharge from the hospital. After six months the intervention group performed better on a problem-solving subscore compared with the control group.

ADD and overweight children: A study performed at Brown Medical School in Providence, R.I., and appearing in the July issue provided heightened awareness about the relationship between attention-deficit disorder/attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, medication use and weight status. The study was a cross-sectional analysis of 62,887 children ages 5 to 17 from the 2003-04 National Survey of Children’s Health.

Children with attention-deficit disorder/attention-deficit/hyperactive disorder not using medication had about 1.5 times the odds of being overweight after adjustments for age, gender, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status and depression/anxiety. Children medicated because of the disorders had 1.6 times the odds of being underweight when compared with children without either diagnosis.

Cognitive performance and breakfast: A crossover trial performed at Ulm University in Ulm, Germany, and published in the August issue demonstrated positive short-term effects of breakfast on cognitive functioning and self-reported alertness in high school students.

The trial involved 104 students in boarding schools between the ages of 13 and 20. Half of them received a standardized breakfast and the other half received no breakfast for seven days. Then, the treatment was reversed. Breakfast had no effect on sustained attention among high school students, but visuospatial memory improved in male students. Self-reported alertness improved significantly in the entire study population. Male students reported feeling more positive after eating breakfast.

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