Volume 1: Issue #5
Vitamins Can Slow Brain Shrinkage and
If you’re past age 60, your brain is shrinking from one-half percent to one percent every year. You can’t prevent this entirely. It’s a normal part of aging.
But you are at the controls when it comes to the rate at which this occurs. You can slow down brain loss to a snail’s pace by taking a few simple steps.
And one of the most effective steps will cost you only a few pennies: Make sure your diet is well supplied with three B vitamins.
This is what scientists have discovered. . .
The dangers of high homocysteine
A normal constituent of the body called homocysteine is produced as a by-product of eating protein.
In itself it’s not a problem, but if blood levels get too high it becomes a health hazard, increasing the risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer and Alzheimer’s.
In a 2010 trial called VITACOG, researchers from the University of Oxford wanted to see if they could lower homocysteine and thereby slow brain shrinkage in 168 people over age 70 with the condition called mild cognitive impairment (MCI).
MCI is basically minor memory and thinking problems, but it can signal the early stage of full-blown dementia.
Half the participants were given supplements containing folic acid (folate), vitamin B6 and B12 – nutrients known to lower homocysteine. The other half were given a placebo (a dummy pill with no active ingredients).
At the end of two years, the shrinkage in the supplement group was one third less per year than in the placebo group. The shrinkage reduction was even greater – just over half (53%) – for those who had the highest homocysteine levels (13 µmol/L or more) at the start of the study.
Does brain shrinkage really signify anything? Yes. Those participants who had the greatest brain atrophy also performed less well on cognitive tests.
Massive shrinkage slowdown in key brain areas
In a second report from the same study in 2012, those who took the supplement were able to lower their homocysteine levels to a third less than the placebo group. Those who had started with the highest homocysteine levels (11.3 µmol/L or more) also saw significant benefits in a range of cognitive tests and functional performance.
In fact, those taking the supplement had a six-fold greater chance of escaping their MCI status and reverting to normal cognition compared to those taking placebos.
The researchers concluded that “B vitamins appear to slow cognitive and clinical decline in people with MCI, in particular in those with elevated homocysteine.”
In a further follow-up in 2013, it was demonstrated that not only can these B vitamins slow brain shrinkage, but they can do so by up to 7½ fold in those parts of the brain that are specifically vulnerable to Alzheimer’s. The shrinkage averaged 3.7% over 2 years in the placebo group compared to just 0.5% in the supplement group.
So ask yourself which you’d prefer – losing 3.7% of your brain in the next two years, or only a half of one percent.
Lead researcher Dr David Smith, said: “Our work shows that a key part of the disease process that leads to Alzheimer’s disease, the atrophy of specific brain regions, might be modified by a safe and simple intervention.”
Food to lower homocysteine
To keep homocysteine low, foods rich in folate, B6 and B12 are required.
Best sources of folate are dark green, leafy vegetables, whole grains, citrus fruits and juices, poultry, shellfish and liver.
Foods rich in animal protein are the best sources of B12, but cooking destroys substantial amounts of the vitamin. Cooked fish, however, retains much of its B12. Milk is also a good bioavailable source (but for other reasons, milk is not such a healthy food). Vegetarians are at substantial risk of a B12 deficiency.
Most whole foods contain B6. Good sources include sunflower seeds, pistachios, fish, poultry, meat, bananas, avocado and spinach.
While a good diet may be enough to keep homocysteine at bay, surveys suggest that men over 50 should have levels that range between 6.17 and 19.58 (average 10.84). The range for women over 50 is from 5.04 to 19.83 (average 9.8). The only way to be sure your diet is protecting your brain is to have a blood test, in consultation with a doctor who knows nutrition (and, unfortunately, most conventional doctors don’t).
As we get older we lose the ability to absorb and convert nutrients into forms the body can utilize, so it is usually wise to take supplements. B12 in particular is hard to absorb from food, even if you eat the right foods.
One of the Oxford group, Dr. Celeste de Jager, concludes from the evidence that cognitive decline can be reversed in people with MCI, but once it has progressed to a more serious level it may be too late. She emphasizes that early intervention is needed.
“A lot of the time brain changes start in your forties and fifties before you get clinical symptoms…I would think that in middle age, people should start thinking about their vitamin levels.”
“I would certainly have multi-vitamins and B vitamins in my cupboard.”