Nutrition & Memory
I dont know about you, but, as the years go by, I sometimes find myself getting a little absent minded. Searching for car keys, going upstairs and completely forgetting why I went up there in the first place. These little memory lapses are one of those silly little annoyances that are harmless and no sign of any major problem. But, silliness aside, is there anything we can do for ourselves to safeguard our memory and stay sharp into older age. Well the answer is a resounding yes. Healthy lifestyle habits such as not smoking and regular exercise have been shown to offer great benefits to long term memory maintenance and the prevention of dementia. But there is of course the food that we eat, and this is one of the most powerful weapons in our arsenal. Following a healthy diet that gives a wide berth to processed food, beige refined starchy carbohydrates, hydrogenated fats, and added sugars is the obvious place to start. There are a few key nutrients however that have been widely studied in this context and should be a focal part of our diet.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Ok, surprise surprise, I am talking about omega 3, but with just cause. The omega 3 fatty acids EPA and DHA influence memory and cognitive health from the moment we begin developing in the womb. DHA is a vital component for the development of the brain and can affect cognitive development from day one. But as we grow and get into advancing years, these fatty acids become even more vital. Firstly they deliver an anti-inflammatory activity. I have written about this extensively here, but the gist of it is that EPA and DHA provide the body with the building blocks it needs to manufacture its own in built anti-inflammatory compounds. Why does this make a difference? Well there is a chain of thought that a certain amount of cognitive decline can be caused by neuro-inflammation, where key areas of the neuron are rendered less functional due to residual inflammation, so easing chronic inflammation can address this.
Omega 3 fatty acids also ensure and maintain the proper functioning of the neurotransmitter receptors and also the areas at the nerve ending that release neurotransmitters. Key neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine play a key role in memory and learning, so ensuring the whole system of release and reception is working as well as it can helps to support long term memory into later life.
Many epidemiological studies have shown an association with high intakes of berries and brightly coloured fruits and vegetables with reduced incidence of memory decline and dementia. This is due to these foods containing high levels of key compounds called flavonoids. I wrote a piece on this group of phytochemicals here, but the long and short of it is that they enhance circulation to the extremities. As we age, our blood vessels can become damaged and circulation begins to suffer. By stimulating the dilation of our blood vessels, flavonoids help to dramatically enhance blood flow ensuring a hearty supply of oxygen and nutrients is sent to the brain. These cells need serious fuelling so supporting blood flow to carry this to the brain can really help to ramp up its performance.
The final focal point is a group of nutrients that have been the star of a lot of research on cognitive function and nutrition. Enter the B vitamins! These play multiple roles in the brain and nervous system. Firstly, they are responsible for the manufacture of neurotransmitters. If the production of these dips just a little, the negative effects can be felt profoundly. Sufficient regular Vitamin B12 intake has been shown to reduce brain shrinkage that accompanies ageing.