Scientists Assert That Some Diets Protect Aging Brains, Others Cause Harm

Human brains tend to shrink and become less nimble in old age, but healthier eating may slow the process.

A study of older adults in Oregon identified mixtures of nutrients that seem to protect the brain, and other food ingredients that may worsen brain shrinkage and cognitive decline.

Diets high in trans fats -- long known to harm the heart and blood vessels -- stood out as posing the most significant risk for brain shrinkage and loss of mental agility. People whose diets supplied them with an abundance of vitamins B, C, D, and E consistently scored better on tests of mental performance and showed less brain shrinkage than peers with lesser intake of those nutrients.

"Trans fats appeared the most detrimental to cognitive function and brain volume in our study," said lead author Gene Bowman, a naturopathic doctor and assistant professor of neurology at Oregon Health & Science University. "Levels of trans fat weren't that high in the blood, so it doesn't take that much."

Unlike previous studies, which have relied on questionnaires to estimate nutrient intake, the Oregon researchers directly measured levels in the blood. That makes the evidence stronger, although not as definitive as a controlled clinical trial. "We wanted to take recall ability out of the equation," Bowman said.

Researchers at OHSU and Oregon State University enlisted 104 of the women and men who have volunteered for the Oregon Brain Aging Study that began in 1989. Their average age was 87. All of them completed a battery of tests of memory and thinking skills, and 42 volunteers also had MRI scans to measure their brain volume.

Rather than focus on single nutrients, the researchers analyzed combinations of nutrients and how they related to brain health.

"We used statistical models that help us appreciate the interaction of nutrients," Bowman said. "There is never just vitamin E or vitamin B-12 circulating in the blood, there's 1,000s of molecules circulating there."

Measuring blood levels allowed researchers to account for important variables all at once, including differences in the way people metabolize food.

"Thus, nutrient biomarker patterns may more closely reflect what is available to brain tissues," said Christy Tangney of Rush University Medical Center and Nikolaos Scarmeas of Columbia University in a commentary on the study.

The Oregon researchers found two nutrient patterns that appeared to promote brain health: The BCDE pattern high in vitamins and antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables, and an omega-3 pattern high in the fatty acids found in fish. But the effect of omega-3 was only significant on one of the six tests of brain function after researchers took into account differences in blood pressure and depression, big risk factors for cognitive decline. The lack of a strong effect fits with a 2010 clinical trial in which fish oil supplements failed to slow the advance of Alzheimer's disease.

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