March 2012

How to Stop Your Brain Aging


Editorial by Patrick Holford, CEO, Food for the Brain Foundation
This is the EU’s year of ‘active ageing’ and nothing could be more important than keeping your brain and memory intact as you get older. Last month, Nature journal carried an article by leading neuroscientists Dr Mark Mattson, from the US National Institute on Ageing, and Dr Alexis Stranahan [1]. They conclude that “successful brain ageing is possible for most individuals if they maintain healthy diets and lifestyles throughout their adult life. Unfortunately, this is currently one of the major conundrums in modern societies, where high-energy food is readily available, exercise is unnecessary in daily routines and preventive medicine is being suppressed by the actions of the food and pharmaceutical industries.”

The vast majority of the known risk factors for memory decline relate to one’s diet, lifestyle and ‘mindstyle’. Learning new things, having good social contact, a sense of purpose, exercise, eating more fish, chocolate, red wine (within limits) and green tea are a few of the factors that seem to reduce risk. In Stranahan and Mattson’s Nature article they discuss other phytonutrients that, at least in animals, are showing positive results. These include curcumin in turmeric, resveratrol from red grapes, flavones in berries.

They also emphasise how ‘metabolic syndrome’ – a kind of internal global warming indicated by blood sugar problems, high cholesterol, blood pressure and blood fats (triglycerides), as well as abdominal weight gain – is not only a major risk factor, but also has the potential to change genetic expression towards accelerated brain ageing. Insulin seems to be the key, and the more carbs you eat the more insulin you make until you become increasingly insensitive to insulin, known as insulin resistance. More and more studies are linking insulin resistance and blood sugar problems to memory problems.

For example researchers at Columbia University in New York have found that twice as many people with high insulin levels developed dementia when compared to those with normal insulin [2]. Also, the people with high insulin levels had the greatest decline in memory. An Italian study of people free from dementia and diabetes showed that high insulin levels were strongly associated with poorer mental function [3]. A six-year Swedish study showed that those with diabetes were one and a half times more likely to develop dementia [4]. Researchers at the University of California found that postmenopausal women with glycosylated haemoglobin levels of 7 per cent or higher were four times more likely to develop mild cognitive impairment or dementia [5]. (Glycosylated haemoglobin is one of the best measures of blood sugar control with a score of 5.5% equating to good blood sugar balance.)

Previous newsletters have discussed how important it is to screen for raised homocysteine levels and, if above 10µmol/l, to lower it by supplementing high dose B vitamins (B6 20mg, B12 500µg, folic acid 400µg).

But none of these prevention steps are profitable for the simple reason that you can’t patent foods, diets or nutrients.

There is much in the news about amyloid protein, the accumulation of which leads to the formation of amyloid plaque found in the brain of those with Alzheimer’s. However none of the drugs developed to stop amyloid protein formation have delivered results in clinical trials. According to Mattson, “The most significant findings recently are the failure of clinical trials with drugs that target amyloid production.”. Stranahan and Mattson’s view, and one that I share, is that “prevention is the key, and the most exciting thing happening is the emerging evidence that one's risk factor for Alzheimer's can be decreased by modification of diet and lifestyle.”


Mediterranean Diet better for your brain


Mediterranean Diet is associated with a healthier brain
White matter hyperintensity volume (WMHV) is a marker of blood vessel damage in the brain, and is measured by MRI. In this study, 1000 people with an average age of 70 years had their diets assessed for comparison to a Mediterranean style eating pattern. It was found that the greater the subject adhered to a Mediterranean style diet, the lower the WMHV burden, indicating a healthier brain.

Our comment: A Mediterranean dietary pattern is high in fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, fish and olive oil, contains moderate amounts of dairy, eggs and poultry, and is low in meat and sugar.

Gardener H, Scarmeas N, Gu Y, Boden-Albala B, Elkind MS, Sacco RL, Decarli C, Wright CB. (2012) Mediterranean diet and white matter hyperintensity volume in the northern Manhattan study. Arch Neurol. 69(2):251-6.

Click here for the abstract.


The downside of poor sleep


Poor sleep linked with inflammation
We all know that poor quality sleep usually leaves us feeling less well, both physically and mentally, than good sleep. In this study, researchers measured the effect of stress on markers of inflammation and compared these in people who sleep well with people who don’t sleep well. The subjects were 83 otherwise healthy older adults (50+ years). They found that, in response to stress tests, the poor sleepers had significantly higher measures of inflammation (the marker is called IL-6) than the good sleepers.

Our comment: The significance of this is that heightened inflammation increases the risk of mental health disorders and degenerative conditions such as dementia, so any factor which contributes to inflammation may be considered to contribute to these conditions. If you aren’t sleeping well, then sleeping pills can help in the short term, but, as was reported in the news recently, carry significant risks if used over the medium to long term. If you’re not sleeping well, take a look at our Insomnia page on the website.

Heffner KL, Ng HM, Suhr JA, France CR, Marshall GD, Pigeon WR, Moynihan JA. (2012) Sleep Disturbance and Older Adults' Inflammatory Responses to Acute Stress. Am J Geriatr Psychiatry. Feb 10. [Epub ahead of print]

Click here for the abstract.



Omega-3 brain boost


Omega-3 associated with bigger better brains
Blood measures of omega-3 essential fats EPA and DHA were taken in 1,575 healthy elderly (aged around 70 years) and compared with their cognitive performance, and results of a MRI brain scan. The researchers found that those people with the lowest blood levels of DHA had lower brain volumes. Those with the lowest levels of DHA and total omega-3’s also had worse cognitive function, as measured through tests of visual memory, executive function (processing and decision making) and abstract thinking.

Comment: This provides yet more evidence of the importance of ensuring good levels of the omega-3 fats which are found in oily fish, fish oil, and can be derived indirectly from seeds and nuts (including linseeds and walnuts), and to a lesser extent from green vegetables.

Tan ZS, Harris WS, Beiser AS, Au R, Himali JJ, Debette S, Pikula A, Decarli C, Wolf PA, Vasan RS, Robins SJ, Seshadri S. (2012) Red blood cell omega-3 fatty acid levels and markers of accelerated brain aging. Neurology 78(9):658-64.

Click here for the abstract.


Overeating is not just bad for your waistline!


A higher calorie intake is associated with increased risk of MCI
In a paper due to be presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology in New Orleans next month, researchers took a random sample of 1,.233 healthy elderly people (70-89 years old) and analysed their calorie intake. They found that those who ate the greatest number of calories each day (more than 2,142) had double the risk of developing Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) than those who consumed the least (fewer than 1,526). MCI commonly precedes the development of dementia. This would suggest that eating a low calorie diet is helpful in warding off dementia.

Source: Geda Y, et al "Caloric intake, aging, and mild cognitive impairment: a population-based study" AAN 2012


Cognitive Function Test Pilot


Thank you to the 400 volunteers who helped pilot the new test
The new cognitive function test was piloted in the first half of March. Over 400 volunteers participated and enabled us to robustly test the tool and resolve any bugs and anomalies before we go live in April.

The cognitive function test is one year old next month and the new test - a variation on the existing test - is intending to replace it as part of the programme of annual retesting.

If you requested a reminder for an annual retest when you did the first test, then you will receive an email after a year.

Thank you to all volunteers for their support to the Alzheimer’s Prevention Project. Your contribution to our research is invaluable.


Healthy Aging Tour


Throughout April Patrick Holford be touring major cities in the UK, Ireland and Canada presenting lectures on ‘How to Prevent Alzheimer’s and Balance Your Mood’ as part of his ‘Healthy Ageing’ campaign which also includes the release of a new book ‘Ten Secrets of Healthy Ageing’ (Piatkus), co-authored with Jerome Burne who won an award this year for Medical Journalism. (Details are on



[1] A. Stranahan, M. Mattson ‘Recruiting adaptive cellular stress responses for successful brain ageing’ Nature Reviews, Neuroscience, 2012:13:209-216

[2] J. A. Luchsinger, et al., ‘Hyperinsulinemia and risk of Alzheimer diesase’, Neurology, 2004;63(7):1187–92

[3] A. M. Abbatecola, et al., ‘Insulin resistance and executive dysfunction in older persons’, Journal of American Geriatric Society, 2004;52(10):1713–8

[4] W. L. Xu, et al., ‘Diabetes mellitus and risk of dementia in the Kungsholmen project: A 6-year follow-up study’, Neurology, 2004’63(7):1181–6.

[5] Yaffe, K, et al., ‘The Metabolic Syndrome and Development of Cognitive Impairment among Older Women’, Archives of Neurology, 2009;66(3):324–328 Become a FRIEND of Food for the Brain and support our Alzheimer's and schizophrenia research.