The nutrient deficiency driving age-related memory loss

Lifestyle is an important component of aging well. Study after study has shown that if we don’t maintain a healthy diet, skip the cigarettes and get regular exercise, we’re in for a world of hurt as we get older.

Another way to maintain good health as we age is to make sure we’re getting the right kinds of nutrients. For instance, the antioxidants known as flavanols help fight age-related frailty, high blood pressure and heart disease and strengthen your nervous system. Flavanols are found in many fruits and vegetables, as well as cocoa and tea.

Flavanols (also spelled flavonols) have been found to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. And they could be key to protecting against another dreaded effect of aging….

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Flavanols could sharpen memory

There’s an idea emerging among investigators that the aging brain requires specific nutrients for optimal health, just as the brain of an infant needs certain nutrients for proper development.

“The identification of nutrients critical for the proper development of an infant’s nervous system was a crowning achievement of 20th-century nutrition science,” says Dr. Scott A. Small, a neurology professor at Columbia University. “In this century, as we are living longer research is starting to reveal that different nutrients are needed to fortify our aging minds.”

Small and other researchers teamed up to investigate the impact of flavanols on age-related memory loss. They randomly assigned more than 3,500 healthy older adults to receive a daily flavanol supplement or a placebo pill for three years. The supplement contained 500 mg of flavanols, including 80 mg of epicatechins — the amount adults are advised to get from their diet.

In each year of the study, the participants were given tests designed to assess the types of memory governed by the hippocampus, and more than a third of the participants had their urine tested for dietary flavanol levels before and during the study.

Deficiency drove age-related memory loss

For the entire group taking the flavanol supplement, memory scores improved only slightly. It’s worth noting that most of those participants were already eating a healthy diet with plenty of flavanols.

Where it gets interesting is when the researchers separated out the participants who had lower levels of flavanols at the start of the study…

At the end of the first year of taking the flavanol supplement, these participants saw their memory scores increase by an average of 10.5 percent compared with those taking the placebo. And their scores increased an average of 16 percent when compared with their memory scores at the start of the study.

“The improvement among study participants with low-flavanol diets was substantial and raises the possibility of using flavanol-rich diets or supplements to improve cognitive function in older adults,” says Dr. Adam M. Brickman, professor of neuropsychology at Columbia University and co-leader of the study.

According to the researchers, a previous study found that flavanol supplements did not improve memory in a group of people with a range of baseline flavanol levels. However, that study didn’t split the group into people with low and high flavanol levels.

“Age-related memory decline is thought to occur sooner or later in nearly everyone, though there is a great amount of variability,” he says. “If some of this variance is partly due to differences in dietary consumption of flavanols, then we would see an even more dramatic improvement in memory in people who replenish dietary flavanols when they’re in their 40s and 50s.”

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Raising your own flavanol count

Plenty of fruits and vegetables contain flavanols, including green, leafy vegetables, tomatoes, broccoli, pears, berries, apples and oranges. So do olive oil, tea, red wine and chocolate among other plant-based products.

If your diet is lacking in these sources, this is a good time to add them in. This link provides a table of flavanol foods by their epicatechins content, the supplement used in the Columbia study.

If you already consume a lot of fruits and vegetables, your flavanol levels are probably fine. But if you’re worried, you can always add a flavanol supplement to your daily regimen. Not only could it help improve memory, but studies show it also supports good heart and circulatory health.

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Low-Flavanol Diet Drives Age-Related Memory Loss, Large Study Finds — Columbia University

Dietary flavanols restore hippocampal-dependent memory in older adults with lower diet quality and lower habitual flavanol consumption — PNAS

Carolyn Gretton

By Carolyn Gretton

Carolyn Gretton is a freelance writer based in New Haven, CT who specializes in all aspects of health and wellness and is passionate about discovering the latest health breakthroughs and sharing them with others. She has worked with a wide range of companies in the alternative health space and has written for online and print publications like Dow Jones Newswires and the Philadelphia Inquirer.