Our brain is one of the most important organs in the body and, as a result, research into keeping it healthy as we age is constantly being carried out.

This week’s Nutrition News looks at just three of the latest studies into the link between nutrition and brain health. Find out more here.

Vitamin C deficiency associated with cognitive impairment

Vitamin C is known to support the immune system but a recent study by Flinders University, Australia, which was reported by News-Medical.net, has found that it could also play a significant role in cognitive health.

The researchers assessed the cognitive function and vitamin C levels of 160 patients over the age of 75. They found that nearly 57% of them had cognitive impairment, whilst over 26% of those studied had vitamin C levels below the point at which scurvy could develop. What is important to note is that scurvy can be very easy to miss in older patients as many of the symptoms are common generally among the older population; these include as bleeding, bruising and skin issues, which can arise from a number of other complications of ageing.

Speaking of the findings, Associate Professor at Flinders University’s College of Medicine and Public Health, Yogesh Sharma, said, “Our findings showed that cognitive function scores were significantly lower among patients who were vitamin C deficient, with further analysis suggesting vitamin C deficiency was almost 3 times more likely to be associated with cognitive impairment after adjustment for other factors.”

Further research is needed to establish causation but the study provides a significant base from which to explore further.

The link between folate and brain health

Folate, or vitamin B9, is well associated with foetal development and fertility support but a recent study has linked it with cognitive health. As blood folate levels diminish with age, an increasing number of our ageing population are becoming deficient, which seemingly has knock on effects for their health and wellbeing.

Researchers of the study, reported by Medical News Today, analysed the medical records of over 27,000 individuals between the ages of 60 and 75 years old. They noted their serum folate levels as well as noting references to dementia diagnosis and death. The researchers found that low serum folate levels, which was classed as results below 4.4 nanograms per millilitre, were associated with a 68% higher risk of dementia diagnosis and were three times more likely to die from any cause.

While the results are interesting, more research is needed to assess whether the association between low folate levels and dementia are a result of reverse causation, whereby low folate levels arise out of dementia rather than being its cause. Due to the length of time it takes to establish cognitive decline, this theory cannot yet be ruled out and, if it is the case, then it could act as a useful marker for detecting early onset dementia. Reverse causation was shown not to be the case in all cause mortality when assessing folate levels.

The impact of vitamin A deficiency on cognition

A grant has been awarded to the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC), as reported in this article, to research the effects of vitamin A deficiency on cognition. Specifically researching whether the depletion of an antioxidant known as all-trans retinoic acid (ATRA), which is the active metabolite of retinol in the brain, promotes reactive oxygen species (ROS) toxicity, signalling early onset Alzheimer’s Disease.

Retinol is a type of retinoid found in vitamin A that is stored in the liver after beta carotene, which is a precursor to vitamin A, is broken down in the body.

The researchers hypothesise that maintaining vitamin A sufficiency could essentially prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer's disease. It is thought that one of the first markers of Alzheimer’s is that the brain develops an overactive dentate gyrus, which is responsible for learning and memory. The researchers believe that their research will show that depletion of ATRA has a strong correlation with the onset of Alzheimer’s.

While vitamin A is a fat soluble vitamin, meaning that it doesn’t need to be restored daily, the modern western diet, which is primarily based on processed food items, may be severely lacking compared to the fish, vegetable, organ meat rich Mediterranean diet, for example. This research could, therefore, illustrate a relatively simple way of supporting brain health as we age through nutrition.

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Alison Astill-Smith author Alison is the Founder of Metabolics who writes about Metabolics updates, events and natural healthcare. Her experience and passion for natural supplements and healthcare comes from her years of experience as a practising osteopath, having founded Metabolics in her search for high quality, natural products in her own work. Alison has been a qualified and practising Osteopath since 1981 and regularly gives seminars on a range of healthcare subjects to the wider practitioner community helping share her knowledge and experience.