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Food Product Design: Nutrition Notes - November 2000 - Building Better Bones

December 2000
Nutrition Notes

Brain Nutrients

By: Andrea Platzman, R.D.
Contributing Editor

Can’t remember where you put your keys or your long-time neighbor’s name? While it may be age-related memory loss, it could be another form of cognitive dysfunction. "Cognitive dysfunction covers a wide variety of problems, including: memory loss, the inability to follow directions or perform activities of daily living, confusion, failure to recognize familiar objects or people, the inability to navigate from one location to another, the inability to read, write or draw and many others," explains Joshua Miller, Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Medical Pathology, University of California-Davis, School of Medicine.

But perhaps nature has provided an answer to this problem — numerous research studies have revealed that the consumption of certain foods, vitamins and herbs may have a positive effect on improving cognitive function.

Bs for the brain

The family of B vitamins helps maintain normal brain and nerve function. In particular, vitamins B6, B12 and folate aid neurological and cognitive function. Low levels of folate have also been associated with depression, which can cause temporary memory lapses.

"Deficiencies of certain vitamins — notably, thiamin (B1), niacin (B2), folate and vitamins B6 and B12 — are associated with dementia and cognitive dysfunction," says Mark Kantor, Ph.D., associate professor and extension specialist, Department of Nutrition and Food Science, University of Maryland, College Park. This is not surprising, because the B vitamins are involved in the Krebs cycle, the metabolism that gives cells, including those in the brain, energy.

Many older people have borderline-low blood levels of these B vitamins. "This is because the acid level in the stomach declines during aging and many elderly people do not absorb enough folic acid or vitamin B12 even if they consume enough in their diet," says Kantor. The acid is needed for the protein to release food’s B12 so that it can be absorbed.

"Since some suggest that vitamin B12 and folic acid supplements are more easily absorbed than the natural forms, it is recommended that adults over 50 take a daily dose of 2.4 mcg of vitamin B12 and 400 mcg of folic acid in combination with eating breakfast cereals fortified with these vitamins," says Kantor.

However, Miller argues that there are no vitamins or minerals that anyone can claim to maintain or improve cognitive function with any degree of certainty. "A lot depends on a person’s nutritional status. For instance, if a person is severely vitamin B12 deficient and is suffering from clinical signs of neurological impairment as a result, restoration of normal B12 would likely improve their neurological function."

A dose of DHA?

Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is an omega-3 fatty acid found to be the predominant structural fatty acid in the brain (8%). The United States has one of the lowest levels of dietary DHA in the world. "Research has shown that DHA is found to significantly improve mental development and provide a substantial developmental age advantage," says Deanna McCarthy, senior manager, scientific affairs, OmegaTech, Inc. Boulder, CO.

While in the womb, a fetus first acquires DHA from the mother’s blood, and later, from breast milk. Breast milk naturally contains DHA, but the amount varies directly in response to the mother’s diet.

An article by Lloyd Horrocks, Ohio State University, Columbus; and Young Yeo, Kyungpook National University in the Republic of Korea, outlined a study where preterm infants that were fed breast milk scored 8.3 points higher on an IQ test at the age of 7.5 to 8-years-old compared to the group that was fed formula containing only linoleic acid and linolenic acid. In another study of preterm infants, those fed formula supplemented with DHA had a higher Bayley MDI (Mental Development Index) score at 12 months than controls fed the usual preterm formula.

These studies, among many others, suggest a definite connection between DHA and infant cognitive function. Clinical trials are now underway to see if supplementing with DHA can help with cognitive dysfunction in seniors.

Herbal ideas

While ginkgo biloba may hold promise for forgetful seniors, there’s no evidence that it will help the average stress-addled person remember where they left their car keys. Over 400 scientific studies have been conducted on proprietary standardized extracts of the ginkgo leaf. In 1999, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and the National Institute on Aging (NIA), both part of the National Institute of Health (NIH), approved a six-year multicenter study to test the efficacy of ginkgo biloba on older individuals who are at risk for dementia.

Gingko biloba prevents platelets in the bloodstream from clumping, thereby allowing the blood to flow more freely. It also has an antioxidant effect, strengthening the capillaries, small vessels that bring blood to tissues, organs and the brain. This herb may relieve symptoms of foggy memory, confusion, dizziness, fatigue, depression, and headache. Verro Tyler, Ph.D., an herbal expert, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, recommends 40 mg of ginkgo biloba three times a day.

Another herb, guarana, from the dried crushed seed paste of the plant Paullinia cupana or Paullinia sorbilis, is known as a "cerebral stimulant." Guarana has a high caffeine content — 2.6% to 7.0% caffeine by dry weight, in comparison to coffee beans, which contain between 1.0% and 2.0% caffeine and dried tea, which contains 1.0% to 4.0% caffeine.

Researchers speculate that the stimulant effect of guarana, which usually lasts about one to three hours, is more gradual and sustained than that given by an equivalent dose of caffeine. Preparations may contain guarana alone or in combination with other nutritional supplements. Guarana levels per dose can range from 250 to 1,200 mg, with caffeine content ranging from 20 to 200 mg. Despite its long history of use, few clinical trials have been undertaken to study its safety and efficacy.

Food for thought

Antioxidants, such as vitamins C and E, may improve cognitive dysfunction. Recent laboratory studies suggest that antioxidant anthocyanins in blueberries may also delay the onset of age-related loss of cognitive function, according to James Joseph, Ph.D., a USDA researcher at Tufts University in the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging.

Other substances, such as lecithin (phosphatidylcholine) and amino acids, carnitine and tyrosine, have been ascribed with brain-building powers, although research has yet to verify these claims.

In order to maintain cognitive function, Miller suggests preserving blood flow to and within the brain, "by exercise and a low-fat, low-cholesterol, low-salt, high vegetable and fruit and heart-healthy diet. What is good for the heart is also good for the brain."


Andrea D. Platzman is a registered dietitian who is a consultant to the food industry, and regularly writes for nutrition publications. She earned a master’s degree in nutrition from New York University, and has a strong culinary and business background.




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