Where did I leave my keys? Who am I supposed to call again? What did I mean by that scribbled note, anyway? Everybody experiences these incidents of forgetfulness.
As we get older, these kinds of memory lapses can become routine, and are casually attributed to “advancing years” by many baby boomers, according to Dr. Heidi White, assistant professor of geriatric medicine at Duke University Medical Center.
Age isn`t the only factor in memory loss, however, says White. She notes that among possible causes for cognitive decline are medications (such as sedatives, which can dull the mind), depression (which affects concentration), and hearing or vision impairment.
Baby boomers and the battle for the mind
Keeping the brain healthy much longer is a goal of many of us, especially people who, as of this writing, were 45 to 63 years old – otherwise called baby boomers. If you consider that a baby boomer turns 50 every 7.5 seconds, by the year 2024 there will be 115 million people over age 50 in the U.S.
Today, approximately 78 million people, about 26 percent of the total U.S. population, were not only born between 1946 and 1964 but are, say demographers and researchers, greatly concerned about loss of memory and the aging of the mind.
True failing memory is different from the forgetfulness of a busy person or the stereotypical absentminded professor. Clinically speaking, failing memory is often accompanied by a person`s declining sense of well-being, and is often described by symptoms such as a lack of mental clarity (brain fog), altered mood (as in depression), decreased mental abilities, worsening sleep patterns, and declining overall energy.
Age of Information Overload
Whence the brain drain? Some researchers believe our brains are overtaxed today. Not many would disagree that we`ve moved beyond the Information Age into the “Age of Information Overload.” It`s believed that our cognitive processing, and maybe even our memory storage capacity itself, can become overburdened as we age.
To one extent or another, there`s little doubt that all of us are bombarded by work and personal e-mail, Internet spam and junk mail, faxes, magazines, 24-hour news, digital pages, telemarketer calls, cell phone voice-mail and even the arcane logistics of play-date scheduling for the kids after school!
Cognition is sensitive to a wide variety of nutritional factors, and modern nutritional science is uncovering that we can improve our mental powers effectively, and even powerfully, through a wide array of nutrients and supplements, including antioxidants, herbs, fats and other targeted dietary supplements.
A November 2008 review in the Journal of the American Nutraceutical Association pointed to benefits of a variety of bioactive nutritional supplement ingredients (often called nutraceuticals), some of which we will look at, in slowing age-associated memory impairment. Vinpocetine and acetyl-L-carnitine were especially effective, followed by huperzine A; rhodiola; ginseng and alpha lipoic acid. The least effective compounds were the drugs, Aricept and Nemanda.
The brain train – vitamins to the rescue
Vitamin C. To test whether vitamin C protects against mental decline, called “cognitive impairment” in this study, researchers from Australia`s University of Sydney looked at 117 elderly people in a retirement community over a four-year period — those who took vitamin C supplements and those who did not. Seniors who took vitamin C supplements experienced a lower incidence of severe cognitive decline. The authors concluded that, “Vitamin C might protect against cognitive impairment.”
Vitamin E. Research from Italy and the U.S. has shed new light on vitamin E`s role in brain health. A July 2005 study by Italian researchers from Perugia`s Institute of Gerontology and Geriatrics (the InCHIANTI study) included 1,033 participants aged 65 and older. The research group found that people with the lowest blood levels of vitamin E had the highest incidence of senile dementia and “cognitive impairment” compared to those who had the highest vitamin E levels.
Another 2005 study, this out of Chicago`s Rush Institute for Healthy Aging, studied 6158 people 65 years of age or older between 1993 and 2002, including a subset of 1,041 patients who were clinically evaluated. The researchers, led by Martha C. Morris, Sc.D., found that higher intakes of vitamin E were associated with a reduced incidence of Alzheimer`s disease.
Other recent studies have looked at different combinations of vitamins and minerals, with vitamins C and E as a foundation.
Alpha lipoic acid is a very powerful brain-friendly antioxidant that has been found to directly restore vitamin C and glutathione to their active forms (after they have been used up) and to indirectly restore vitamin E to its powerful form, as well.
In animals, alpha lipoic acid protects brains cells against beta amyloid plaque, the buildup of which is associated with dementia and Alzheimer`s disease. In fact, animal studies published in 2002 and 2003 showed that treatment with alpha lipoic acid prevented or reversed cognitive impairment similar to dementia in humans.
In 2001, researchers gave nine patients with Alzheimer`s disease 600 mg each day of ALA in addition to Aricept or Exelon for an average of one year. This was the first such study to find that treatment with alpha lipoic acid may be “neuroprotective” against Alzheimer`s disease and related dementias.
In a 2007 follow-up, 43 ALA-supplemented patients were observed for a period of up to 48 months. In patients with mild dementia, the disease progressed extremely slowly; in patients with moderate dementia, dementia progressed twice as slowly.
B is for brain
In the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, researchers looked at 69 people with Alzheimer`s disease, including 33 patients who were taking a multivitamin supplement of folic acid, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12.
In the 66 patients who were available for the eight-week follow-up, the high-dose B-vitamin supplement significantly reduced levels of homocysteine, which is important since high levels of homocysteine may be associated with the breakdown of the myelin sheaths that encase nerves and may be partly responsible for the symptoms of Alzheimer`s-like dementia.
Botanical brain boosters
Ginkgo. Since stress in humans is associated with decreased memory and learning function, Polish scientists gave an extract of Ginkgo biloba (EGb 761 or Ginkgold) to rats that had been chronically stressed. According to their study, the supplement improved memory and cognition in all rats, including those that had been stressed.
The last 30 years have yielded a large body of evidence supportive of ginkgo supplementation for brain-boosting, although some studies have studied the wrong groups, have looked for the wrong results or have used too low a dose. According to 2000 review by New York University`s P.L. LeBars, daily dosages of 240 mg a day appeared to demonstrate the most benefit in patients with memory disorders or dementia.
Ginseng. In 2008, a group of South Korean researchers published the results of an open-label study in which patients with Alzheimer`s disease received Panax ginseng extract or a placebo for 12 weeks. In the ginseng-supplemented group, all main measures cognitive performance began to show improvements and continued for up to 12 weeks. After discontinuing ginseng, the improved scores declined to the levels of the control group. According to the authors, “These results suggest that Panax ginseng is clinically effective in the cognitive performance of [Alzheimer`s disease] patients.”
Pomegranate. A 2005 rodent study found that drinking pomegranate juice during pregnancy may lower the risk of hypoxia ischemia-related brain injuries (a condition caused by decreased blood flow and oxygen to the fetal brain) in babies. The authors said their results “demonstrate that maternal dietary supplementation with pomegranate juice is neuroprotective for the neonatal brain.”
A more recent study in newborn mice, published in 2007, suggest that special compounds in pomegranate, polyphenols, should be further investigated as a potential treatment to decrease brain injury due to neonatal hypoxia-ischemia.
Vinpocetine. Vinpocetine is a supplement that`s derived from vincamine, an extract of the periwinkle plant (Vinca minor). Widely used and studied in Europe for over 25 years, awareness of this product and the research behind is now starting to come into its own.
A 2001 review (meta-analysis) in the Journal of the American Nutraceutical Association by the University of Miami`s Bernd Wollschlaeger, M.D., winnowed down 39 vinpocetine studies involving 1,912 subjects into three studies – from 1986 through 1991 – involving a total of 174 patients treated with vinpocetine and 114 given a placebo.
According to Wollschlaeger, all three studies “suggest a significant [mental] improvement in the cognitive function of patients suffering from dementia or other symptoms of cerebrovascular diseases.” Based on several mental-performance tests, the significant improvement in cognitive function, in these three studies, says Wollschlaeger, “suggest[s] a clinical application of vinpocetine in the early phases of mild cognitive impairment” before full-blown “senile dementia” or Alzheimer`s disease start to develop.
“Designer” supplements for brain support
Acetyl-L-carnitine (ALC). A 2004 review of 21 double-blind, placebo-controlled studies using acetyl-L-carnitine in the treatment of “mild cognitive impairment” and mild Alzheimer`s disease showed significant improvements versus the placebo or “dummy” pills.
CDP-choline. A relative of phosphatidylserine (PS), cytidine-5-diphosphocholine, or CDP-choline, has been attracting some recent research interest. In 2005, scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found, in an animal study, that long-term supplementation with CDP-choline may hold back memory impairment.
Huperzine A. Huperzine A is a purified substance derived from Chinese club moss (Huperzia serrata). A 2005 paper on this supplement speculated that the beneficial effects in Alzheimer`s disease are probably due to several cell- and neuro-protective effects operating at the same time.
Food-based mental mojo?
In a 2004 observational study from the U.K. looking at dietary supplement use, people born in 1936 received mental ability testing in 1947 and later in 2000-2001. At age 64, cognitive function was better in dietary supplement users than in non-users, especially in those people who were also taking marine oil supplements.
Quality of mind = quality of life
Many would argue that quality of mind – a well functioning brain – is truly at the elemental core of quality of life; therefore, ways in which we can improve our mental abilities and functions, and fend off the memory and general cognitive declines associated with aging, should be more than welcome – especially when these ways are holistic, supplement-based, and without the profound unwanted side effects often associated with synthetic pharmaceutical drugs.
James J. Gormley
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