Simplistically said, cognition is the term for “knowing," while memory is “knowing what you know." Cognitive function is defined as the intellectual process by which one becomes aware of, perceives, or comprehends ideas. It embraces the quality of knowing, which includes all aspects of perception—recognition, conception, sensing, thinking, reasoning, remembering and imagining. Memory is the ability to store, retain and recall information.
As the natural process of aging occurs, humans experience a progressive decline in overall cognitive (brain) function. This causes loss of ability to store and retrieve from short-term memory, employ abstract reasoning and easily learn new information. Many neurological diseases directly related to aging, such as Parkinson's, may also contribute to the loss of memory/cognitive function. People can improve cognitive function and brain efficiency through simple lifestyle changes, such as incorporating memory exercises, healthy eating, physical fitness and stress reduction into their daily lives.
It’s a commonly held misconception that memory loss is inevitable as people grow older. There are many different factors that can affect the ability to take in, store and recall information, such as genetics, disease, drugs, general health and so on. While it’s true that many people will appear to have less of an ability to remember things as they get older, memory loss isn’t inevitable. To keep the brain active and in good condition in the twilight years, by far the best things to do are to exercise regularly and eat a healthy diet with plenty of fish, fresh fruit and vegetables. Exercise improves the blood flow to the brain and keeps it “oiled up" and in good working order—and if a person’s diet provides the right fuel, all the better. Unfortunately, people tend to become more sedentary as they get older, so giving the body and brain a regular workout, no matter what age, is crucial.
As the brain ages, it becomes more prone to inflammation and oxidation, which can cause free radical damage to brain cells. The cumulative effect of free radical damage in the brain through the years as a result of aging can negatively influence cognitive function. This can result in memory loss. In order to reduce the risk of cognitive decline, one must look to improving lifestyle by adopting healthy habits. Antioxidant-rich foods and/or supplements provide powerful compounds that not only slow oxidation, but also serve as anti-inflammatory agents. This includes a healthy diet with the inclusion of cold-water fish such as salmon and tuna, plus abundant vegetables and fruits. A healthy diet also limits the amount of saturated fats and trans fats, which have been associated with cognitive decline. Exercise is important, as well as employing stress-management tactics. Further, “use it or lose it" is apropos here, meaning, learn something new. Read. Do crossword puzzles, join a debate club. Be mentally active.
A brain-healthy lifestyle—recognizing risks and designing a personalized brain-health action plan—is really the best bet for delaying the onset of memory loss. Learning about the growing links between cardiovascular markers (blood pressure, blood sugar, body weight and BMI, blood cholesterol, C-reactive protein) and brain health is crucial. A population study from Finland developed a fascinating scale that can predict 20-year risk for dementia—sort of a “brain-aging speedometer" (BM J. 2001;322(7300):1447-1451). Obesity, smoking, lack of physical activity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol are some of the culprits this study identified, so keeping these under control is imperative.
In 2008, researchers from the Medical University of South Carolina linked memory loss to a diet high in saturated fat and cholesterol (J Alzheimers Dis. 2008;14(2):133-145). They discovered that rodents fed a diet high in cholesterol and saturated fat displayed impairment in working memory. Working memory loss is associated with inflammation of the brain, which in turn is associated with poor diet. The researchers suggested a diet high in animal fats may also contribute to memory loss in humans.
Diets high in fat, especially trans and saturated fats, can adversely affect cognition; while those high in fruits, vegetables, cereals and fish are associated with better cognitive function and lower risk of dementia. Although the precise physiologic mechanisms underlying these dietary influences are not completely understood, modulation of brain insulin activity and neuroinflammation likely contribute.
Trans fats are worse for cholesterol levels than saturated fats because they raise bad low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and lower good high-density lipoprotein (HDL). They also fire inflammation, an overactivity of the immune system that has been implicated in heart disease, stroke, diabetes and other chronic conditions. Even small amounts of trans fat in the diet can have harmful health effects.
In the past few decades, Americans have replaced much of their dietary saturated fat with omega-6 fatty acids. It is estimated that people are now eating 20 times more omega-6s than omega-3s. From a biochemical standpoint, this lopsided imbalance in dietary intake of the omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids sets the stage for powerful and chronic proinflammatory reactions.
The brain is the organ most sensitive to a change in blood glucose levels—too little produces fatigue, confusion, irritability and aggression; while too much may result in loss of consciousness. Glucose intolerance, gut dysbiosis, and mineral and vitamin deficiencies, all of which can impact mental functioning, are also risks associated with a diet containing too much refined sugar. Fast foods and processed foods are full of added sugar; which spikes the body’s blood sugar levels, and hampers the brain’s memory and learning ability.
Atherosclerosis that occurs in the brain (cerebrovascular disease) can reduce blood flow to the aging brain and increase the risk of stroke. The decreased blood flow can cause nerve cells in the brain to be lost prematurely, which may lead to a decline in mental function.
Scientists searching for clues to the causes of age-related dementia suspect a combination of high serum homocysteine and low serum folate has an unhealthy impact on cognitive function in seniors. B-complex vitamins such as niacin and folic acid are vitally important to brain function and help keep the mind sharp.
Research at the University of California at Davis suggested cognitive decline is not a normal part of aging for the majority of elderly people. (JAMA. 1999;282(1):40-46). In fact, only people with high levels of atherosclerosis or diabetes, and those with the apolipoprotein E4 gene associated with Alzheimer's disease, are at high risk for a decline in cognitive ability as they age.
Although old age is the single biggest risk for dementia, Alzheimer’s is not a normal part of aging. Alzheimer’s can strike people as young as their 40s; there are some half a million individuals in the United States with early-onset dementia. Recent research has pinpointed disruptions in specific memory networks in Alzheimer’s patients that appear distinct from normal aging. The larger point is that while Alzheimer’s is still incurable, it’s not untreatable. Both of these misconceptions are remnants of an outdated view that hinders families from getting the best diagnosis and care.
Another brain myth is that new neurons cannot be created; they only die as one ages. In fact, new neurons can grow within the mature adult brain; this process is known as neurogenesis. The scientific consensus, however, is that neurogenesis only occurs in the hippocampus and the olfactory bulb. Regardless of neuron growth or death, brain function and capabilities can be learned and developed throughout life because the different processes involved in learning not only depend on the amount of brain cells, but also on the number of interconnections created between neurons. The brain changes when one learns—a phenomenon known as brain plasticity. Researchers have discovered that synapses (the connections between neurons) and the blood cells that support neurons grow and increase in number. Babies’ brains make synaptic connections at a furious pace until about 10 months, but the brain actually grows and changes throughout life. If neurons are damaged or lost, they can't grow back—but the synapses, or connections between neurons, can. That’s how stroke patients, for example, can regain speech and motor skills through therapy.
The industry should help consumers become more informed. There are many ways to feed the brain. Choosing the right foods to eat will certainly maximize brainpower. The commonly held consumer beliefs that brain cells just naturally die as one ages and memory loss, dementia and senility are natural to getting old need to be debunked. Becoming more nutritionally conscious and paying attention to what one eats will certainly help to keep brain functioning at optimal levels throughout one’s lifetime.
It is never too early to be proactive about and protective of one’s health. With ongoing consumer education, product launches that focus on brain-support benefits will receive even more favorable responses, as people embrace positive claims such as, “improvement in problem-solving ability" and “enjoy clearer memory."
For more information about cognitive health market, follow the link to view the free “Cognitive Health Chronicles" digital summit.
Steve Holtby has been involved in the natural products industry for more than two decades. Since August 2008, he has served as president and CEO of Soft Gel Technologies Inc. in Los Angeles, where he formerly held the position of national sales director and was vice president of sales of OptiPure. Prior to joining the company in 1998, Holtby worked in marketing as a brand manager for Nature’s Way. While there, he oversaw the introduction of its vitamin line—which carried the newly introduced structure/function claims and was a bold entry, as the company previously focused on the herbal segment of the market.