Nutritional Strategies to Preserve Memory and Cognition: What You Need to Know
As adults age, they become increasingly vulnerable to impaired memory and cognitive function, which can foreshadow the development of Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia.
Scientists have made great advances in unraveling the physiological changes that precipitate and accompany the declining health of the brain and central nervous system. These findings have led to the development of nutritional strategies to preserve and enhance the structure and function of the nervous system with aging.
- Uridine contributes to the structure of essential brain cell components while supporting communication between nerve cells, changes that have been associated with improved memory and mood.
- GPC (glycerophosphocholine) supports synthesis of the essential neurotransmitter acetylcholine, while boosting memory function.
- Phosphatidylserine boosts acetylcholine levels and contributes to healthy brain cell membranes, with benefits for cognition and mood. Phosphatidylserine may be even more effective when combined with the omega-3 fatty acid DHA.
- Vinpocetine enhances metabolism and blood flow in the brain, and may provide support for conditions such as vascular dementia and ischemic stroke.
- Like drugs used to treat Alzheimer's, the herb ashwagandha helps prevent the breakdown of the brain neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Ashwagandha further enhances the growth of neurites, which facilitate communication among neurons.
- Blueberries fight the memory impairment associated with free radicals and beta-amyloid plaques in the brain. Similarly, grape seed extract protects brain cells from the toxic effects of oxidative stress and beta amyloid.
- The hormone pregnenolone supports nerve cell growth in the brain's memory center and enhances acetylcholine release.
A proactive approach to preserving and enhancing cognitive function using natural therapies may provide the best protection against mind-robbing dementia and Alzheimer's disease.Phosphatidylserine and DHA: Synergistic Support for Brain Cells
Phosphatidylserine may be even more beneficial for brain and nervous system health when coupled with the omega-3 fatty acid DHA.
DHA is a major structural and functional component of the central nervous system, accounting for 30-50% of the total fatty acid content of the human brain. In infants and children, DHA is essential for the brain's growth and functional development. It also helps support normal brain function in adults, including learning and memory. Low levels of DHA, by contrast, are associated with an increased risk for Alzheimer's.49
In the brain, DHA combines enzymatically with phosphatidylserine to form nerve cell membrane components that support healthy nerve function. Substantial laboratory research suggests that phosphatidylserine's ability to improve cognitive skills is greatly increased in the presence of DHA.50
Furthermore, the combination of DHA and phosphatidylserine powerfully supports energy production in brain cells. Scientists from the National Institutes of Health believe that phosphatidylserine with attached DHA is among the most critically important molecules for healthy brain function, and that phosphatidylserine works optimally in the presence of abundant levels of DHA.51
Researchers have developed an innovative phosphatidylserine-DHA (PS-DHA) compound designed to optimally support brain cell structure and function. To evaluate its effects on memory, they examined middle-aged rats with accelerated brain aging. While DHA alone showed minimal effects, PS-DHA substantially protected against the memory-robbing effects of brain aging.52
This unique combination of PS-DHA was also examined in a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). At the end of three months, those receiving the PS-DHA compound had a total response to treatment of 47%, compared to just 19% in the placebo group. These findings suggest that the phosphatidylserine-DHA combination may improve behavioral and learning disabilities in ADHD patients.52Vinpocetine: Enhancing Cerebral Blood Flow
The brain health benefits of vinpocetine, derived from the periwinkle flower, are widely recognized in Europe, where it is available only by prescription to treat symptoms of age-related memory impairment.
By improving sluggish cerebral blood flow, vinpocetine enhances the brain's use of oxygen and glucose.53 Vinpocetine also increases electrical conductivity between nerve cells and supports the activity of nerve pathways related to mental alertness.54 When combined with the popular herb ginkgo biloba, vinpocetine speeds the processing of short-term working memory in normal adults.55
By enhancing vasodilation (relaxation of blood vessels), vinpocetine offers targeted benefits for cognitive dysfunction related to vascular disease involving vessels that supply the brain with blood.5 In three studies of older adults with memory impairment related to poor brain circulation or dementia, vinpocetine produced significantly more improvement than placebo in tests of attention, concentration, and memory.43
In a well-controlled trial of 203 patients with mild-to-moderate dementia, 30 or 60 mg of vinpocetine taken daily for four months was deemed safe and was associated with substantial improvements relative to placebo in ratings of overall status, cognitive performance, and severity of illness.56
By interfering with blood clotting at several points during the chain reaction that ultimately causes ischemic stroke, vinpocetine may even protect high-risk individuals from this devastating disease.57 Vinpocetine appears to work by blocking the activation of voltage-sensitive channels for calcium and sodium,58 and by preventing release of potentially toxic glutamate and free radicals.59,60
Because vinpocetine may inhibit blood clotting, it should not be used with Coumadin® or other blood thinners, except under a doctor's recommendation.
Pregnenolone Supports Nerve Health
One of the most powerful strategies for supporting nervous system health with aging is to ensure optimal levels of the hormone pregnenolone. Synthesized from cholesterol in the mitochondria of all cells, pregnenolone serves as a precursor for numerous essential hormones in the body, including dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), estrogens, progesterone, and testosterone.83
As individuals grow older, they experience a dramatic decline in pregnenolone production, as well as in the hormones for which pregnenolone is a precursor.84-86 Declining levels of these essential hormones have been linked with many disorders that commonly accompany aging.
Scientists have noted that levels of pregnenolone are intimately connected with cognitive performance. In fact, pregnenolone directly influences release of the crucial neurotransmitter acetylcholine in several key brain areas involved in memory, learning, cognition, and sleep-wake cycles. Furthermore, administration of pregnenolone reverses the decline in new nerve growth (neurogenesis) that commonly occurs in disorders like Alzheimer's disease. In particular, pregnenolone dramatically enhances nerve cell growth in the hippocampus, the brain region responsible for memory, which undergoes marked deterioration in Alzheimer's patients.87,88
Supplemental pregnenolone helps promote a youthful mind and body by contributing to optimal hormone levels, supporting acetylcholine activity, and promoting nerve cell growth in the brain's memory center.
Since pregnenolone may affect hormone levels, those with hormonally related cancers such as prostate or breast cancer should avoid using pregnenolone.Ashwagandha: Brain Support Through Stress Relief
The herb ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) has long been used to boost energy and blood supply, reduce inflammation, and increase longevity. Modern science is now uncovering ashwagandha's benefits for cognitive health.60,61
Ashwagandha has been shown to alleviate stress, which not only influences hormonal status and various bodily systems, but also directly affects brain function. In one study, rats were subjected to stress and evaluated for changes in brain cells, particularly in the hippocampus. Control animals kept under stress-free conditions exhibited no changes; however, in the stressed animals, 85% of brain cells examined showed signs of degeneration. When ashwagandha was administered to stressed subjects, the number of degraded brain cells was reduced by 80%.62
Ashwagandha has shown promise in treating Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases. For example, a recent study in laboratory animals showed that administering ashwagandha extract significantly and dose-dependently reversed all studied parameters of Parkinson's-type neurodegeneration.63 In treating Alzheimer's, physicians often rely on acetylcholinesterase-inhibitor drugs like Aricept®, which block the degradation of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine in order to slow the symptoms and progression of the disease. Ashwagandha extract likewise acts as an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor, and may thus help to preserve cognitive function and memory by protecting acetylcholine from breakdown.64
In any situation of cognitive decline, regeneration of the neuronal network may present a promising therapeutic option. Japanese researchers found that ashwagandha helped promote the regeneration and outgrowth of neurites that facilitate communication between nerve cells. Additionally, ashwagandha produced improvements in memory in a mouse model of Alzheimer's disease.65Blueberries: Antioxidant Protection for Brain Healt
Neuroscientists are continually searching for natural agents that can protect brain cells from the devastating effects of oxidative stress and inflammation. Blueberries are rich in the powerful antioxidant phytochemicals known as polyphenols, which include proanthocyanidins that are particularly beneficial for brain health.66-69
A recent report found that blueberry extracts exert the same anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activities as the whole fruit.70 Anthocyanidin molecules from such extracts have been shown to cross the blood-brain barrier, making them accessible to neurons.71
When free radicals attack delicate brain cells, they disrupt optimal cellular function and often cause age-related cognitive decline.72 In an experimental rat model, a diet supplemented with plant-derived antioxidants reversed age-related decline in memory and cognition.73 Other studies have shown that increasing dietary intake of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables can maintain optimal neuronal function and cognition well into old age.74-76
In one study, scientists discovered that supplementation with blueberries prevented memory loss in aged rats. Researchers fed one group of rats a diet supplemented with blueberries and fed another group a control diet. The animals were then tested for object-recognition memory. The blueberry-fed rats performed significantly better than the control group, suggesting that supplementation with blueberries restored youthful levels of function in the aging brain.75
Intriguingly, the researchers also tested for levels of nuclear factor-kappa beta (NFkB) in the rats after supplementation with blueberries. A naturally occurring compound in cells, NFkB increases production of inflammatory mediators that often initiate degenerative diseases. The scientists found that NFkB levels were significantly lower in rats fed blueberries compared to controls, and that when NFkB levels were lower, the rats scored higher on memory tests.75
Animal studies also indicate that blueberries help maintain high levels of new cell generation in the hippocampus, the brain area that suffers extensive damage in Alzheimer's disease.77
Oxidative stress is a major factor in the development of Alzheimer's, along with overproduction of the beta-amyloid protein, which appears to cause cell destruction. The result is damaged cells that are then unable to manufacture or respond normally to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.
A group of scientists sought to determine whether blueberries have a protective effect on rats bred to have Alzheimer's disease.78 Astonishingly, they determined that a blueberry-supplemented diet caused Alzheimer's-bred rats to perform normally on tests of memory and motor behavior. A surprising finding was that levels of destructive beta-amyloid protein in the test animals' brains did not differ from those of normal rats. The researchers concluded that a diet incorporating blueberries may help overcome genetic predispositions to Alzheimer's disease.
Other studies of blueberries and cognitive health have found that blueberries provide important protection against destructive inflammation in the brain.79 Brain memory regions of young and old rats fed either a blueberry diet or control diet were subjected to an inflammatory challenge and then examined for production of a protein that would indicate a normal protective response to stress. The protein level in the blueberry-fed aged rats was completely restored within four hours of the inflammatory stimulus. This kind of rapid effect suggests that blueberry supplementation could improve neuroprotective responses to diseases with a mixed oxidative and inflammatory cause, such as Alzheimer's.Grape Seed Extract: Guarding Against Senile Plaque Formation
The brain's extraordinarily complex circuitry generates massive amounts of oxygen free radicals that may play an important role in the impairment of healthy brain activity that commonly accompanies aging.
Rich in polyphenols, grape seed extract is considered one of nature's most potent antioxidants. Researchers believe that grape seed's antioxidant properties confer broad-spectrum protection against premature aging, disease, and decay; in fact, grape seed extract packs 20 times more antioxidant power than vitamin E and 50 times more antioxidant power than vitamin C.80 These attributes have led many scientists to suggest that grape seed extract is an essential nutrient for maintaining optimal brain health and function.
Grape seed extract not only improves blood circulation by strengthening capillaries, arteries, and veins, but also prevents the formation of senile plaques that can severely damage the brains of those with dementia.81 For example, South Korean scientists treated the brain cells of rats with grape seed extract before exposing them to the toxic beta-amyloid protein. Beta amyloid promotes the development of plaques that accumulate in the brains of patients with Alzheimer's disease. Treatment with grape seed extract conferred significant protection on the rat brain cells. While the untreated rat brain cells sustained acute free-radical damage and subsequently died, cells treated with grape seed extract suffered little damage.81
In research published in 2006, Indian scientists sought to evaluate grape seed extract's effects on the accumulation of oxidative DNA damage seen in normal aging. They administered grape seed extract to young and aged albino rats for 30 days. In rats that received the extract, grape seed extract inhibited the accumulation of age-related oxidative DNA damage in the spinal cord and in various brain regions such as the cerebral cortex, striatum, and hippocampus—the very sites involved in thinking, processing, and memory that are most degraded in neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.82Conclusion: Prevention Is the Best Brain Medicine
An abundance of scientific evidence indicates that any program to protect the brain from dementia and other ravages of aging should incorporate compounds that have been shown to stimulate brain energy metabolism, boost acetylcholine levels, and protect against inflammation, thrombosis, and oxidative stress. By taking advantage of recent advances in our understanding of nerve cell function, cognition and memory, and how these processes are disrupted during normal aging, health-conscious adults can devise an individualized anti-aging program utilizing the most potent brain-protective nutrients available today.
Supplements such as uridine, GPC, phosphatidylserine, DHA, vinpocetine, ashwagandha, blueberries, and grape seed extract work via numerous mechanisms to provide natural, broad-spectrum support for optimal brain health and function. Because it is so much easier to protect the health of your brain cells than it is to restore their function once damage has manifested, it makes sense to begin a preventive program as soon as possible. When it comes to protecting and preserving brain health, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" is truly a no-brainer.References
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