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Jan 23, 2012

Nutritional Status Related to Brain Shrinkage and Cognitive Decline

Brain shrinkage or atrophy is a common phenomenon observed with aging.  But Alzheimer’s disease and other types of mental decline are associated with more significant levels of brain shrinkage. 

In a recent study published in Neurology, researchers found that high levels of certain vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids in the blood of older adults correlated with better cognitive function and larger brain volume.  On the contrary, adults with elevated levels of trans fats in their blood had poorer performance on mental ability tests along with smaller brains.  

Gene Bowman, lead author and assistant professor in the Department of Neurology at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, noted, “For people with a vitamin profile high in B,C, D, E, those particular nutrients seem to be working together on some level.”   

Researchers measured blood levels of over 30 nutrients in 104 older adults, with the average age being 87 years old.  Participants in the study were free of memory and cognitive problems, and were generally well-educated, nonsmokers who were healthy and had few chronic diseases.  MRI scans were performed in 42 participants as a method of determining brain volume.    

Results of the study indicated that different types of nutrients affected cognition in different ways.  Better performance of executive function and attention, as well as better visuospatial skills were found in adults with high blood levels of vitamins B, C, D, and E.  These individuals also tended to have larger brains.  Higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids correlated with improved executive function as well as fewer changes to white matter of the brain.  With changes to white matter often being associated with damage to blood vessels in the brain, this is well in support of the current knowledge that omega-3s have protective effects on brain health.

Although this study did not determine any cause-and-effect relationships between vitamins, omega-3s, and brain health, it did reveal important correlations among them.  Researchers concluded from their results that it makes sense to stay away from trans fats.  "The question is: Do people need to eat healthier foods, or do they need to stay away from unhealthy foods? It looks like you need to do both. Eat more healthy foods and stay away from unhealthy foods," Bowman said.

Dr. Shana McQueen