As the U.S. population ages, brain health is top of mind for consumers looking for solutions to maintain their cognitive edge. A 2015 report by the Alzheimer’s Association found that 1 in 9 Americans aged 65 or older has Alzheimer’s disease, while 14% of Americans over the age of 71 have some form of dementia.(1) Put another way, every 67 seconds, someone in the United States develops Alzheimer’s disease. The annual number of new cases of dementia (including Alzheimer’s) is expected to double by 2050.
While these numbers are staggering, research is showing that dietary factors can play a role in stabilizing long-term cognitive health. Traditional diets, such as those based on Mediterranean or Ayurvedic principles, have been found to be protective of brain health. A recent study found that Mediterranean dietary practices in individuals with age-related cognitive decline are associated with improved cognitive function.(2) Research also demonstrates the neuroprotective role of herb and spice intake.(3) Studies into specific components of healthy diets have shown them to have substantial benefits for memory and cognitive health. Some of the most promising elements include healthy fats from fish and olives, polyphenols from fruits and other sources, and curry spices such as turmeric.
1. Alzheimer’s Association. 2015 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures. Alzheimers Dement. (2015). at http://www.alz.org/facts/downloads/facts_figures_2015.pdf. Accessed February 10, 2016.
2. Valls-Pedret C et al., “Mediterranean diet and age-related cognitive decline: A randomized clinical trial,” JAMA Internal Medicine, vol. 175, no. 7 (July 2015): 1094–1103
3. Panickar KS, “Beneficial effects of herbs, spices and medicinal plants on the metabolic syndrome, brain and cognitive function,” Central Nervous System Agents in Medicinal Chemistry, vol. 13, no. 1 (March 2013): 13-29
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Fatty acids from fish and olive oil are essential components of a Mediterranean diet. Both have shown promise for supporting healthy cognition. In a recent meta-analysis of 21 studies including 181,580 participants, Yu Zhang and colleagues from Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China, found that increasing dietary fish intake (and incremental intake of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)) was associated with lower risks for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.(4)
A randomized controlled trial assessed the effects of two different Mediterranean diets on long-term cognitive health versus a low-fat control diet. Led by Elena Martinez-Lapiscina, the researchers found that a Mediterranean diet supplemented with 1 liter of extra virgin olive oil per week was superior to a second Mediterranean diet supplemented with 30 g of mixed nuts per day or the control diet for improved cognitive performance, including on measures of fluency and memory.(5)
4. Zhang Y et al., “Intakes of fish and polyunsaturated fatty acids and mild-to-severe cognitive impairment risks: a dose-response meta-analysis of 21 cohort studies,” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 103, no. 2 (February 2016): 330–340
5. Martínez-Lapiscina EH et al., “Virgin olive oil supplementation and long-term cognition: the PREDIMED-NAVARRA randomized, trial,” The Journal of Nutrition, Health, and Aging, vol. 17, no. 6 (2013): 544–552
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Resveratrol is a stilbene compound found in red wine, grapes, and other foods that is often associated with cardiovascular and healthy-aging benefits. Recent studies support a role for resveratrol in various aspects of cognitive health. A. Veronica Witte and colleagues conducted a study in which they administered 200 mg of resveratrol or a placebo daily to 46 individuals aged 50-75 for 26 weeks.(6) Resveratrol led to significant improvements in memory and enhanced the function of the hippocampus, one of the primary regions of the brain impacted in Alzheimer’s disease.
A study in mice found that resveratrol supplementation enhanced the animals’ performance on behavioral tests assessing memory formation.(7) In this study, researchers from the National Institute of Psychiatry in Mexico gave the mice resveratrol as a component of their diet for 14 days. Resveratrol enhanced the production of new neurons in the hippocampus and increased neural cell survival, indicating the potential benefits of the compound for promoting neuroplasticity and healthy brain aging. Early indications are that this health-promoting component of red wine may have far-reaching benefits for brain aging.
6. Witte AV et al., “Effects of resveratrol on memory performance, hippocampal functional connectivity, and glucose metabolism in healthy older adults,” The Journal of Neuroscience, vol. 34, no. 23 (June 4, 2014): 7862–7870
7. Torres-Pérez M et al., “Resveratrol enhances neuroplastic changes, including hippocampal neurogenesis, and memory in Balb/C mice at six months of age,” PloS One. Published online December 22, 2015.
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A ubiquitous element of curry in South and Southeast Asia, the spice turmeric is a rich source of pigments known as curcuminoids. These compounds may benefit various aspects of cognitive health. Recently, curcumin has shown neuroprotective effects on neurons of the hippocampus in laboratory studies(8), and chronic administration of curcumin to an amyloid beta-induced rat model of Alzheimer’s disease resulted in an improvement in cognitive deficits.(9)
A randomized, placebo-controlled trial led by Katherine Cox from the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia, evaluated the effects of a solid lipid curcumin formulation—as branded ingredient Longvida from Verdure Sciences (Noblesville, IN)—on cognition and mood in healthy adults aged 60-85.(10) The researchers found that both working memory and mood were significantly improved after four weeks of treatment with curcumin.
8. Stankowska DL et al., “Neuroprotective effects of curcumin on endothelin-1 mediated cell death in hippocampal neurons,” Nutritional Neuroscience. Published online December 12, 2015.
9. Zhang L et al., “Curcumin improves amyloid β-peptide (1-42) induced spatial memory deficits through BDNF-ERK signaling pathway,” PloS One. Published online June 26, 2015.
10. Cox KHM et al., “Investigation of the effects of solid lipid curcumin on cognition and mood in a healthy older population,” Journal of Psychopharmacology, vol. 29, no. 5 (May 2015): 642–651
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An extract from French maritime pine trees, branded ingredient Pycnogenol from Horphag Research (Hoboken, NJ) is rich in antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds, including proanthocyanidins and bioflavonoids. Several studies have found that the administration of Pycnogenol to animals following traumatic brain injuries results in a protective effect for brain function.(11,12)
Recently, Gianni Belcaro from Chieti-Pescara University in Pescara, Italy, led a study aiming to assess the benefits of Pycnogenol supplementation in healthy individuals between the ages of 35 and 55.(13) Twelve weeks of supplementation with 150 mg per day of Pycnogenol led to significant decreases in measures of oxidative stress as well as significant improvements in pattern-recognition memory, spatial working memory, and mood. The results indicated that Pycnogenol supplementation may boost cognitive function in healthy individuals.
11. Norris CM et al., “Pycnogenol protects CA3-CA1 synaptic function in a rat model of traumatic brain injury,” Experimental Neurology, vol. 276 (February 2016): 5–12
12. Ansari MA et al., “Dose- and time-dependent neuroprotective effects of Pycnogenol following traumatic brain injury,” Journal of Neurotrauma, vol. 30, no. 17 (September 1, 2013): 1542–1549
13. Belcaro G et al., “Pycnogenol® improves cognitive function, attention, mental performance and specific professional skills in healthy professionals aged 35-55,” Journal of Neurosurgical Sciences, vol. 48, no. 4 (December 2014): 239–248
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