Boosting brain power

by Allison Gibeson
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There have not been many food and beverage products designed to boost brain health, but new studies are providing evidence omega-3s may improve cognition.

A recent study published in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, found a diet lacking in omega-3 fatty acids may cause the brain to age faster and lose some memory and thinking abilities. The study measured omega-3s in red blood cells and tested structural aging indications of the brain as well as cognitive functions. The study looked at 1,575 individuals with an average age of 67.

“People with lower blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids had lower brain volumes that were equivalent to about two years of structural brain aging,” said Zaldy S. Tan, author of the study and staff member at the Easton Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research and the Division of Geriatrics at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Those with the lowest levels of omega-3s also had the poorest performance on visual memory and abstract thinking tests.

“It’s significant because it shows these nutrients are related to structural brain aging … and also to performance, memory and other cognitive functions that affect not only the structure but the function of the brain as well,” Dr. Tan said.

While he said it’s premature based on this study to make specific medical recommendations about brain health and omega-3s, Dr. Tan said when this study is taken into context with other similar studies it is enough evidence for consumers to be aware of this benefit. He said in the future the impacts of omega-3s on brain health should be looked at in other populations and the actual rates of dementia among those with different levels of omega-3s also should be studied.

Another study, published in the on-line issue of Neurology, found those who had diets high in several vitamins (C,D,E and B) or in omega-3s were less likely to have the brain shrinkage associated with Alzheimer’s than those whose diets were not high in such nutrients.

It’s not just the elderly who may possibly benefit from omega-3s boost to the brain. Researchers at the University of Kansas are currently doing a study to determine if prenatal nutritional supplementation with

DHA, a type of omega-3, benefits children’s intelligence and readiness for school. The study will follow 350 mothers who started in the program during pregnancy, with the mothers randomly assigned to take either 600 mg of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) or 600 mg of a placebo during the last half of pregnancy.

“The possibility that DHA may have long-term benefits for cognitive-intellectual development, particularly on measures that predict school achievement, would have enormous implications for public policy on prenatal nutrition,” said Susan Carlson, a professor at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

Jeff Bernfeld, marketing director for life’sDHA, a DSM brand, said DSM is continually trying to promote brain health with consumers and doctors. He said the company sees brain health as important as there is increased concern about Alzheimer’s disease and dementia and there aren’t many other nutrients available to assist with brain health. He said while other benefits omega-3s offer, including heart-health benefits, may be found in other sources, there aren’t many alternative sources to help with brain health.

“We think brain health is a huge, emerging area much bigger than it was previously,” Mr. Bernfeld said.
The next step to raise consumer intake of omega-3s is to overcome technical challenges to be able to incorporate omega-3s in more end food products. Mr. Bernfeld said one of the most significant technical challenges his company already has overcome is being able to incorporate omega-3s into skim milk. Omega-3s typically work best in products with more fat. While he said they may put their DHA into almost any product, he did note that shelf-stable, clear beverages such as bottled water present challenges. The DSM ingredient is included in various end products such as Dempster’s Smart Bread from Maple Leaf Foods, Horizon organic milk from WhiteWave Foods, Life Balance Flour Tortillas from Mission, and many infant and children’s products.

According to Mintel’s Global New Products Database, there were 68 products introduced in 2011 with functional brain and nervous system claims, up from 66 in 2010 and 56 in 2009.
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