Supplements & Brain Health: Keeping Neural Connections Running Smoothly
It is typical for people to have some mild memory weakness as they grow older. A temporary lapse in memory is often affectionately referred to as a “Senior Moment.” Common examples include forgetting dates and names or walking into a room and promptly forgetting the reason for entering. However, some individuals experience more frequent and impairing memory loss that goes beyond normal aging; this is referred to as mild cognitive impairment (MCI).
However, scientists are discovering that cognitive deterioration need not be an “inevitable” result of aging. In fact, increasing evidence suggests that cognitive decline and even dementia are preventable, and to some extent perhaps even reversible. Individuals can take steps to maintain cognitive health throughout life.
Jolie Root, senior nutritionist and educator with Illinois-based Carlson Laboratories, said decreased brain health could encompass many conditions, but if we limit the topic to MCI and Alzheimer’s disease (AD), the number of those affected is under intense scrutiny. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, long-term studies indicate 15 to 20 percent of those over age 65 are affected with mild cognitive impairment and 5.4 million individuals have been diagnosed with AD, with that number expected to triple by 2050. Older people ( > 65) largely are impacted.
Cheryl Myers, chief of education and scientific affairs at Wisconsin-based EuroPharma, Inc., pointed out that according to the Alzheimer’s Association, AD is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. More than five million Americans have AD, and every 66 seconds, someone in America develops the disease.
“We’re still identifying the causes of AD, but we know that chronic brain information and oxidative stress play a significant role,” said Myers. “Also, there are characteristic physical changes in the brains of individuals with this condition—accumulated clusters of a protein called beta amyloid, and clumps of dead and dying nerve and brain cells. These clusters and clumps, called plaques and tangles, are believed to interfere with the proper transmission of messages between brain cells, and the death of the cells themselves. Anything that increases inflammation in the brain increases risk for AD. In fact, since high blood sugar causes inflammation, some practitioners are even calling AD ‘Diabetes of the Brain.’”
Root added, “The non-modifiable risk factors for AD are well established and include advancing age, genetic factors (such as the presence of the APOEe4 allele), and family history. Although multiple studies have shown that diet and lifestyle factors are associated with risk for AD, the scientific evidence is lacking and further studies are needed.”
She agreed with Myers regarding the link between certain diseases and AD. “Chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, hyperlipidemia and depression have been associated with AD. There is an increasing body of evidence that point to an association between diabetes and increased risk of neurodegenerative diseases such as AD. AD itself has been referred to by some as type 3 diabetes, so it is essential to explore potential therapeutic interventions. Although the underlying brain changes and mechanisms of diabetes-induced cognitive impairment still are not well understood, interventions to delay or prevent the onset of cognitive impairment due to chronic disease, such as diabetes, offer hope. It is evident from the existing literature that onset of cognitive impairment in diabetes and neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s could have major underlying processes that cause neuronal death; these include failed antioxidant defense mechanisms, increased inflammatory processes, and reduced mitochondrial energy production.”
Root added that evidence suggests that people that have insulin resistance, in particular those with type 2 diabetes, have between 50 and 65 percent higher risk of suffering from AD. “The working assumption is that brain insulin resistance leads to accelerated neurodegeneration driven by metabolic dysfunction, increased oxidative stress, neuroinflammation, impaired cell survival and imbalanced lipid metabolism. Lack of insulin not only impairs cognition but also seems to be implicated in the formation of the amyloid plaques. Insulin resistance with subtle cognitive impairments is seen even in normal adults with prediabetes, suggesting a higher risk of developing AD in later life,” she said.
Nutraceuticals for Brain Health
Myers said she believes we better understand now that inflammation and the damage it causes is a major contributor to cognitive decline, so some of the mechanisms of action and basis for research have changed as well. “That’s one of the reasons we developed CuraMed Brain, which many retailers also remember as Mental Advantage. It provides botanical and nutritional ingredients that reduce inflammation and oxidative damage in the brain, and help keep neural connections running smoothly. This includes clinically studied curcumin blended with turmeric essential oil for enhanced absorption and the benefits of turmerones, vitamin D3, and the concentrated botanical oils of rosemary and sage.”
Root added that the long chain fatty acids found in fish, EPA and DHA are suggested to play a protective role especially if they are maintained at optimal levels in adulthood, prior to the onset of impairment. “Epidemiological and preclinical studies have shown that consumption of EPA and DHA may be protective against cognitive decline and prevent the progression of mental health disorders such as AD,” she said. “The relationship between mental health disorders and omega-3 fatty acids is demonstrated by lower levels of red blood cell membrane or blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids in patients suffering from neurodegenerative disorders as compared with healthy people.”
More specifically, EPA and DHA both are protective against unhealthy inflammation levels, Root explained. “Docosanoids, metabolites of DHA have been shown to improve healing after brain injury, and DHA levels increasing in the diet have been linked to reductions in levels of amyloid precursor proteins and levels of amyloid itself. Omega-3s have also been shown to improve insulin receptor function and reduce insulin resistance in healthy people and in overweight diabetic and prediabetic people.”
Myers noted that curcumin protects brain cells from damaging inflammation and oxidative stress. “In experimental models of AD, curcumin was able to reduce beta amyloid levels and shrink the size of accumulated plaques by over 30 percent.” According to Myers, other studies have shown that curcumin plays a role in regenerating neurons, creating new brain cells and refreshing cells that may have once been considered irretrievable. “This process is called neurogenesis, and is an important factor in major depressive disorder (MDD) as well.
“One of the most prestigious Alzheimer’s research institutes in the world, the McCusker Alzheimer’s Research Foundation (supporting research at Edith Cowan University, Perth, Australia) is focused on learning more on the benefits of curcumin for treating AD,” Myers said. “In a ground-breaking new study, the form of curcumin we use in CuraMed brain is being administered to patients with mild to moderate dementia in order to learn more about how curcumin can be used as an effective treatment of AD.”
The other benefit of curcumin—and one that also relates to AD—is that it prevents pre-diabetes from becoming full-blown diabetes, Myers continued. “The connection to AD is that high blood sugar levels create intensive inflammation in the brain. In fact, in one study, 25 percent of those with high blood sugar and actual diabetes developed AD. Even just having high blood sugar in the “normal” range still led to an 18 percent increased risk of dementia.”
Aside from curcumin, vitamin D directly affects our cognitive health and abilities, Myers added. “By the time we’re 65 years old, our ability to naturally synthesize vitamin D from sunlight declines by up to 60 percent. Compared to people who have optimal levels of vitamin D, low levels of vitamin D at age 65 mean you are twice as likely to experience mental decline. In fact, a Dutch study found that patients with AD but high serum levels of vitamin D3 scored significantly higher on cognitive testing than those with low levels of the nutrient.”
Another clinical study, published in the journal Neurology, tracked adult volunteers aged 65 and older for six years, their vitamin D levels, and their elevated risk of dementia. At the end of the study, they found that even moderate deficiencies in vitamin D increased the risk to 53 percent. For AD, the risk was 69 percent—and that was for those who are only moderately deficient, Myers pointed out. For anyone with severe deficiencies, the risk of dementia was 125 percent, and the risk of Alzheimer’s was 122 percent. Vitamin D is absolutely essential for the brain, Myers noted.
Additionally, research at the UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) School of Medicine, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease showed that vitamin D works with curcumin to protect the brain from damaging inflammation and clear the brain of amyloid plaques by stimulating a type of immune cell called a macrophage to more aggressively seek out and clean up beta-amyloid fragments in the brain. Curcumin and vitamin D work synergistically—they strengthen one another’s impact—and are a potent protective force for the brain.
In addition, “concentrated plant oils are powerful medicine,” Myers said. “Oils from rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and Spanish sage (Salvia lavandulifolia) plants have a long history of use as aids to enhancing memory and learning,” she noted, adding that rosemary oil can neutralize dangerous free radicals that destroy brain cells. “Once it crosses the blood/brain barrier, it does not activate until free-radical stress occurs, so it’s safe and doesn’t act indiscriminately.
“Both rosemary and Spanish sage preserve acetylcholine, a messenger in the brain that supports memory and learning. Low levels of acetylcholine are associated with AD. They do this by inhibiting the activity of acetylcholinesterase, an enzyme that breaks down the neurotransmitter. This is similar to how prescription drugs work, but without the serious adverse effects,” Myers said. In a study in New Zealand, this plant oil was given to people with AD, and their attention and focus improved, along with many of their other symptoms. While the authors stated that more research has to be done, no significant side effects have been reported for either of these plant oils.
Trends in the Brain Health Category
Awareness, supplements and other natural interventions are the areas to focus on for brain health trends. Root added that increased levels of EPA and DHA in concentrated liquids and capsules make it easier for people to raise their omega-3 blood levels to achieve targeted intake. She said a recommendation of 8 percent on omega-3 index tests allows people to take medically relevant doses of EPA and DHA. Studies show that to improve cognition with DHA, dose matters, Root pointed out. “At the 2016 GOED Exchange Conference in Tenerife, an analysis of studies looking at cognition revealed that in studies of DHA that found little or no benefit, the DHA dose levels were typically lower than 500 mg daily, while studies that found benefit typically used DHA doses of 750 mg to as high as 1,500 mg.”
It is also important to realize that an early start can improve chances of healthy brain function throughout life. “I think that aside from a greater role that lifestyle and natural interventions can have on Alzheimer’s or other cognitive conditions,” Myers noted, “you’ll start to see younger people becoming aware that they need to start earlier with a regimen of inflammation-fighting ingredients to protect neuroplasticity.” However, that may not always be easy. “It can be tough to convince people in their 20s that this is necessary, but as everyone moves into their 40s and 50s, noticing the experience of their parents or other relatives makes the need for nutritional support more obvious.”