Can Diet Protect Memory?

photo credit: MSNBC.com

This article provides an excellent overview of healthy living and the best practices and actions you can take to take charge of your memory's health. I thought I should share it to kick off our monday.

Molly Masland, MSNBC Health Editor

As concern over Alzheimer's disease grows, more Americans are turning to expensive and potentially unsafe supplements that claim to enhance memory. But prevention of age-related memory loss may be no further away than your refrigerator, and no more expensive than a bag of groceries, experts say.

With the aging population of baby boomers in the United States, more research is being done than ever before on diseases such as Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. Scientists are developing a better understanding of why memories fade, and along the way they are finding new ways to combat the decline.

For one thing, research increasingly suggests that diet may be important in preventing Alzheimer's.

Inside the aging process

As the brain ages, it loses the ability to protect itself from the barrage of commonplace dangers it faces every day, particularly inflammation and oxidation, a process which allows damaging free radicals to attach themselves to cells.

While it's not entirely clear what causes Alzheimer's disease, amyloid plaque — a goopy, fibrous substance akin to fur balls in the brain — plays a key role. As the plaque builds up, it causes more oxidation and inflammation, and begins to kill off brain cells.

In addition, brain cells often stop communicating with each other as people age, making it harder for the brain to process thoughts, retain short-term memory and create new cells.

"Old neurons are like old married couples - they don't talk to each other very much anymore. They just sit in the room with the remote and stare at the TV," says Dr. James Joseph, director of the Neuroscience Lab at the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston.

Older dogs can learn new tricks

While research in the field of aging and nutrition is still in its infancy, scientists have found that diet may help minimize the brain's sensitivity to oxidation and inflammation, as well as improve brain cells' ability to communicate with each other.

One of the most intriguing areas of research involves the role of antioxidants, potent chemicals in plants that protect against free radicals, highly active molecules that damage cells. Antioxidants are what give fruits and vegetables their bright colors. Plants produce these chemicals to protect themselves from environmental insults, such as pollution, and when humans eat plants, they also reap the protective benefits.

In a study involving about 70 beagles, Dr. Carl Cotman, director of the Institute for Brain Aging and Dementia at the University of California, Irvine, found that older dogs fed a diet rich in antioxidants over several years were able to perform tasks — and learn new tricks — far better than fellow canines fed a normal diet.

"We rejuvenated a capacity in the aging brain which wasn't there in the beginning and wasn't coming back on its own," says Cotman. "It indicated the brain has a capacity to recover some age-related loss of cognitive function."

Moreover, MRI scans later revealed structural changes in the brains of the dogs on the antioxidant diet, most notably a decrease in the buildup of amyloid plaque.

Part 2 will be run later in the day

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