Brain food: nutrients to help you stay sharp

March 03, 2004|By Betsy Hornick | Betsy Hornick,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

What if mental decline did not have to be a natural consequence of aging? What if part of the secret to staying sharp lay in the foods we eat?

Emerging evidence suggests that getting enough of certain nutrients - namely iron, zinc and B vitamins - may help stave off the cognitive decline seen with aging, possibly even Alzheimer's and dementia.

"We're learning that if you feed your brain the right nutrients, it will work harder for you throughout life," said Dayle Hayes, dietitian, author and nutrition therapist in Billings, Mont.

It is well-known that iron deficiency impairs brain development and learning in children. "The adult brain may also be affected by iron deficiency," said Mary Kretsch, research physiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service at the Western Human Nutrition Research Center in Davis, Calif.

Recent studies conducted by Kretsch and her colleagues found a decline in concentration, short-term memory and attention spans in men and women with low iron and zinc levels.

There also is growing evidence that getting enough B vitamins can prevent, slow or reverse deterioration in memory and other mental capacities. B vitamins - particularly folic acid (or folate), vitamin B6 and vitamin B12 - are known to play a role in the production of important brain chemicals required for cognition and other brain functions.

It seems that individuals with Alzheimer's and dementia have higher levels of an amino acid called homocysteine in their blood. B vitamins help to break down homocysteine in the body.

Betsy Hornick is a dietitian in Poplar Grove, Ill., and writes free-lance nutrition articles for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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