Study: Older Adults with Higher Levels of Several Nutrients Have Better Brain Health and Cognition

Diana Yates wrote . . . . . . . . .

A new study links higher levels of several key nutrients in the blood with more efficient brain connectivity and performance on cognitive tests in older adults.

The study, reported in the journal NeuroImage, looked at 32 key nutrients in the Mediterranean diet, which previous research has shown is associated with better brain function in aging. It included 116 healthy adults 65-75 years of age.

“We wanted to investigate whether diet and nutrition predict cognitive performance in healthy older adults,” said University of Illinois postdoctoral researcher Christopher Zwilling, who led the study with U. of I. psychology professor Aron Barbey in the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology.

The analysis linked specific patterns of a handful of nutrient biomarkers in the blood to better brain health and cognition. The nutrient patterns included omega-3 fatty acids, which are abundant in fish, walnuts and Brussels sprouts; omega-6 fatty acids, found in flaxseed, pumpkin seeds, pine nuts and pistachios; lycopene, a vivid red pigment in tomatoes, watermelon and a few other fruits and vegetables; alpha- and beta-carotenoids, which give sweet potatoes and carrots their characteristic orange color; and vitamins B and D.

The researchers relied on some of the most rigorous methods available for examining nutrient intake and brain health, Barbey said. Rather than asking participants to answer food-intake surveys, which require the accurate recall of what and how much participants ate, the team looked for patterns of nutrient “biomarkers” in the blood. The team also used functional magnetic resonance imaging to carefully evaluate the efficiency with which various brain networks performed.

“The basic question we were asking was whether diet and nutrition are associated with healthy brain aging,” Barbey said. “And instead of inferring brain health from a cognitive test, we directly examined the brain using high-resolution brain imaging.”

Functional MRIs can indicate the efficiency of individual brain networks, he said.

“Efficiency has to do with how information is communicated within the network,” Barbey said. “We looked at ‘local efficiency’ – how well information is shared within a spatially confined set of brain regions – and also ‘global efficiency,’ which reflects how many steps are required to transfer information from any one region to any other region in the network.

“If your network is more efficiently configured, then it should be easier, on average, to access relevant information and the task should take you less time,” he said.

Participants also completed several cognitive tests.

The analysis found a robust link between higher levels of several nutrient biomarkers in the blood and enhanced performance on specific cognitive tests. These nutrients, which appeared to work synergistically, included omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, carotenoids, lycopene, riboflavin, folate, vitamin B12 and vitamin D.

The analysis also revealed that a pattern of omega-3s, omega-6s and carotene was linked to better functional brain network efficiency.

Different nutrient patterns appeared to moderate the efficiency in different brain networks. For example, higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids paralleled the positive relationship between a healthy frontoparietal network and general intelligence. The frontoparietal network supports the ability to focus attention and engage in goal-directed behavior.

“Our study suggests that diet and nutrition moderate the association between network efficiency and cognitive performance,” Barbey said. “This means that the strength of the association between functional brain network efficiency and cognitive performance is associated with the level of the nutrients.”

To test the stability of the nutrient-biomarker patterns over time, the researchers invited 40 participants back for a second analysis roughly two years after the first tests. Similar nutrient patterns persisted in this subset of the original group.

“Because we’re investigating how groups of nutrients work together, we’re getting a more accurate snapshot of how the body processes these nutrients and how they can impact the brain and cognitive health,” Zwilling said. “Of course, future studies are needed to affirm and extend these results.”

Source: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Researchers Determine Exercise Dose Linked to Improved Cognitive Performance in Older Adults

Jacqueline Mitchell wrote . . . . . . . . .

Staying mentally sharp – that’s aging Americans’ highest priority, according to the National Council on Aging. While thousands of clinical trials suggest that exercising the body can protect or improve brain health as we age, few studies provide practical prescriptive guidance for how much and what kind of exercise.

Now, an exhaustive systematic review of 4,600 clinical trials – led by researchers at the Berenson-Allen Center for Noninvasive Brain Stimulation at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) and published online today in Neurology: Clinical Practice – provides new insight into the optimal dose of exercise– what kind and how much – for maintaining cognitive performance in healthy older adults, as well as those with mild cognitive impairment and dementia.

“While there is solid evidence to suggest that maintaining a regular exercise regimen can improve brain health we were most interested in how we could practically apply these scientific findings to the lives of our patients, their family members and even to ourselves,” said corresponding author Joyce Gomes-Osman, PT, PhD, a post-doctoral research scholar at the Berenson-Allen Center who is also an assistant professor at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. “For other forms of treatments such as prescription drugs, patients are prescribed a specific amount. Our study highlights the need to get this specific with exercise, too.”

The team found that nearly any type of exercise, from aerobic exercises such as walking, running and cycling to weight-lifting and mind-body exercises such as yoga and tai chi, can contribute to improved cognitive performance. Interventions that had individuals exercising for at least 52 hours over a period of six months led to the greatest improvement in thinking abilities. Additionally, the most stable improvements in thinking abilities were found in mental processing speed, both in healthy older adults and individuals with mild cognitive impairment.

“It’s very encouraging that the evidence supports all sorts of different exercise interventions, not just aerobic, to improve thinking abilities,” said Alvaro Pascual-Leone, MD, PhD, Chief of the Division of Cognitive Neurology and the Director of the Berenson-Allen Center for Noninvasive Brain Stimulation at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. “The most stable improvements in thinking abilities were found in processing speed, both in healthy older adults and individuals with mild cognitive impairment.”

To conduct the review, Pascual-Leone, Gomes-Osman and colleagues searched the medical literature for randomized controlled trials testing the impact of various exercise regimes on cognition. The initial effort yielded 4,600 relevant studies. After screening those for quality and content, 98 trials including more than 11,000 participants were included in the review.

Taken together, the studies investigated a wide range of exercises (walking, running, weight-lifting, yoga, etc.) and duration of investigation (from as little as four weeks to up to a year). Using a rigorous review process, the researchers averaged and described the parameters used across the studies, revealing the relationships among exercise type, intensity, session duration, frequency and total hours and five categories of cognitive abilities.

Gomes-Osman notes that weekly time spent exercising in minutes – well-known to confer cardiovascular and other physical health benefits – was not correlated with improved cognitive abilities. That could suggest people need more consistent exercise over a longer period of time to achieve benefits in cognitive performance.

“We are still learning about all the ways in which exercise changes our brain, and we are also all different, so identifying an ideal exercise dose remains a challenge,” said Gomes-Osman. “We have many more questions about exercise dose, and we will design further studies to follow up.”

Source: Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center


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Lutein May Yield Significant Cognitive Benefits

Researchers have found that lutein, a nutrient and organic pigment found in kale, spinach, avocados, and eggs, may be effective in rejuvenating cognitive functions.

The health benefits of green foods, such as kale, spinach, and other leafy vegetables, have long been discussed by nutritionists.

The importance of lutein – a nutrient and organic pigment, or carotenoid, found in a range of foods including kale, carrots, and even eggs – has often been singled out by specialists in recent studies. Medical News Today, for instance, have lately reported on lutein’s role in reducing inflammation in heart disease.

New research from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in collaboration with the University of Georgia in Athens, has unveiled yet another health benefit of lutein: the ability to counteract cognitive aging.

Lead researcher Dr. Naiman A. Khan, of the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Illinois, and his colleagues published their findings in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.

Cognitive aging sets in early

The researchers started from the premise that cognitive aging becomes apparent earlier in life than one might expect.

Previous studies had only monitored cognitive aging in elderly adults, but Dr. Khan and his colleagues wanted to take a different approach.

“As people get older, they experience typical decline. However, research has shown that this process can start earlier than expected. You can even start to see some differences in the 30s,” says first study author Anne Walk, a postdoctoral researcher also at the University of Illinois.

With this in mind, the researchers recruited 60 adult participants aged between 25 and 45, setting out to investigate whether or not lutein intake can have an impact on cognition.

The researchers explain that lutein is a naturally occurring substance that cannot be synthesized in the human body. This is why it must be absorbed from foods that synthesize it, such as kale and other green leafy vegetables, or else through food supplements.

Once assimilated by the human body, lutein can be detected in brain tissue as well as in the eyes’ retinas, which makes the appraisal of lutein levels more convenient, as non-invasive measurements can be taken.

“If lutein can protect against decline, we should encourage people to consume lutein-rich foods at a point in their lives when it has maximum benefit,” says Walk.

More lutein improves cognitive performance

On this occasion, the researchers gauged lutein levels in the participants’ eyes by asking them to respond to flickering light stimuli.

The neural activity in the participants’ brains was assessed by electrodes attached to the scalp, as each participant was tasked with an attention-related exercise designed to test their selective attention, attentional inhibition (the ability to ignore irrelevant stimuli), or response inhibition (the ability to suppress inappropriate impulses).

Dr. Khan and colleagues found that the participants who exhibited higher levels of lutein were cognitively more similar to younger individuals than they were to individuals of the same age with lower lutein levels.

“The neuro-electrical signature of older participants with higher levels of lutein looked much more like their younger counterparts than their peers with less lutein. Lutein appears to have some protective role, since the data suggest that those with more lutein were able to engage more cognitive resources to complete the task,” explains Walk.

Following this study, the researchers seek to gain a better understanding of how a larger lutein intake might impact the level of the carotenoid accumulated in the retina, and to what extent lutein levels actually influence cognitive capacity.

“In this study we focused on attention, but we also would like to understand the effects of lutein on learning and memory,” concludes Dr. Khan.

Source: Medical News Today


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Brain Training’ App Found to Improve Memory in People with Mild Cognitive Impairment

A ‘brain training’ game developed by researchers at the University of Cambridge could help improve the memory of patients in the very earliest stages of dementia, suggests a study published today in The International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology.

Amnestic mild cognitive impairment (aMCI) has been described as the transitional stage between ‘healthy ageing’ and dementia. It is characterised by day-to-day memory difficulties and problems of motivation. At present, there are no approved drug treatments for the cognitive impairments of patients affected by the condition.

Cognitive training has shown some benefits, such as speed of attentional processing, for patients with aMCI, but training packages are typically repetitive and boring, affecting patients’ motivation. To overcome this problem, researchers from the Departments of Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences and the Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute at the University of Cambridge developed ‘Game Show’, a memory game app, in collaboration with patients with aMCI, and tested its effects on cognition and motivation.

The researchers randomly assigned forty-two patients with amnestic MCI to either the cognitive training or control group. Participants in the cognitive training group played the memory game for a total of eight one-hour sessions over a four-week period; participants in the control group continued their clinic visits as usual.

In the game, which participants played on an iPad, the player takes part in a game show to win gold coins. In each round, they are challenged to associate different geometric patterns with different locations. Each correct answer allows the player to earn more coins. Rounds continue until completion or after six incorrect attempts are made. The better the player gets, the higher the number of geometric patterns presented – this helps tailor the difficulty of the game to the individual’s performance to keep them motivated and engaged. A game show host encourages the player to maintain and progress beyond their last played level.

The results showed that patients who played the game made around a third fewer errors, needed fewer trials and improved their memory score by around 40%, showing that they had correctly remembered the locations of more information at the first attempt on a test of episodic memory. Episodic memory is important for day-to-day activities and is used, for example, when remembering where we left our keys in the house or where we parked our car in a multi-story car park. Compared to the control group, the cognitive training group also retained more complex visual information after training.

In addition, participants in the cognitive training group indicated that they enjoyed playing the game and were motivated to continue playing across the eight hours of cognitive training. Their confidence and subjective memory also increased with gameplay. The researchers say that this demonstrates that games can help maximise engagement with cognitive training.

“Good brain health is as important as good physical health. There’s increasing evidence that brain training can be beneficial for boosting cognition and brain health, but it needs to be based on sound research and developed with patients,” says Professor Barbara Sahakian, co-inventor of the game: “It also need to be enjoyable enough to motivate users to keep to their programmes. Our game allowed us to individualise a patient’s cognitive training programme and make it fun and enjoyable for them to use.”

Dr George Savulich, the lead scientist on the study, adds: “Patients found the game interesting and engaging and felt motivated to keep training throughout the eight hours. We hope to extend these findings in future studies of healthy ageing and mild Alzheimer’s disease.”

The researchers hope to follow this published study up with a future large-scale study and to determine how long the cognitive improvements persist.

The design of ‘Game Show’ was based on published research from the Sahakian Laboratory at the University of Cambridge. The study was funded by Janssen Pharmaceuticals/J&J and Wellcome.

In 2015, Professor Sahakian and colleagues showed that another iPad game developed by her team was effective at improving the memory of patients with schizophrenia, helping them in their daily lives at work and living independently. The Wizard memory game is available through PEAK via the App Store and Google Play.

Source: University of Cambridge


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Chocolate May Improve Cognitive Function within Hours, Says Review

Honor Whiteman wrote . . . . . .

Need an excuse to raid that chocolate stash? A new review may provide just that. Researchers have found that cocoa flavanols could boost cognitive function within just a few hours of consumption.

Additionally, researchers found that regular, long-term intake of cocoa flavanols may protect against cognitive decline.

Flavanols are naturally occurring compounds found in various types of plants, with some of the highest levels found in the beans of the cocoa tree.

Flavanols have antioxidant properties, meaning that they have the ability to reduce the effects of cell damage caused by oxidative stress.

What is more, studies have shown that flavanols can improve blood vessel function and lower blood pressure.

But the benefits of flavanols do not end there. A new review – recently published in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition – suggests that cocoa flavanols could benefit cognitive functioning.

The research was conducted by Valentina Socci, of the University of L’Aquila in Italy, and colleagues.

Rapid improvements in cognition

Previous studies have suggested a link between the intake of cocoa flavanols and better cognitive function, with dark chocolate often cited as the best source.

For the new research, Socci and team wanted to delve deeper into the brain benefits of cocoa flavanols: what specific cognitive functions are affected by cocoa flavanols? And are the effects immediate?

The researchers sought to answer these questions and more by conducting an in-depth review of existing studies looking at the cognitive effects of cocoa flavanols.

In particular, the team looked at how cocoa flavanols affect cognitive functioning over time and within hours of consumption.

The researchers found that, while only a small number of randomized controlled trials have looked at the short-term effects of cocoa flavanols on cognitive function, they do point to some significant benefits.

The team uncovered evidence of a link between consumption of cocoa flavanols and almost immediate improvements in working memory. One study, for example, identified working memory improvements in young adults just 2 hours after consuming 773 milligrams of cocoa flavanols.

In another study, researchers found that consumption of cocoa flavanols appeared to offset cognitive impairment caused by a night of sleep deprivation.

However, the authors note that the reported acute effects of cocoa flavanols were dependent on the type of cognitive assessments that the studies used, as well as the length of these assessments. They found that it required highly demanding cognitive tests to detect the most subtle benefits of cocoa flavanol consumption.

Elderly adults reap greatest benefits

On looking at the long-term effects of cocoa flavanol consumption, the researchers found that the majority of studies looking at this association had been conducted in elderly adults.

The review suggests that a daily intake of cocoa flavanols – for at least 5 days and up to 3 months – posed the greatest benefits for cognitive function, leading to improvements in attention, processing speed, verbal fluency, and working memory.

Socci and team note that these benefits were strongest for elderly adults who already had mild cognitive decline or other memory impairments when the studies began – a finding that surprised the researchers.

“This result suggests the potential of cocoa flavanols to protect cognition in vulnerable populations over time by improving cognitive performance,” say Socci and co-author Michele Ferrara, also of the University of L’Aquila.

“If you look at the underlying mechanism, the cocoa flavanols have beneficial effects for cardiovascular health and can increase cerebral blood volume in the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus,” they continue. “This structure is particularly affected by aging and therefore the potential source of age-related memory decline in humans.” The researchers add:

“Regular intake of cocoa and chocolate could indeed provide beneficial effects on cognitive functioning over time.”

The team cautions, however, that we should avoid eating too much chocolate, since it is high in calories and sugar. Still, the results suggest that when it comes to cognitive function, a little bit of chocolate could do wonders.

Source: Medical News Today


Read also:

Brain-impaired elderly subjects appear to most benefit from cocoa flavanols: Review . . . . .


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