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Certain Nutrients Appear to Slow Brain Aging

npj Aging journal logo

Some degree of cognitive decline—generally affecting thinking speed and attention span—is a normal part of aging. Research shows that age-related physical changes to certain areas of the brain, including the hippocampus and frontal and temporal lobes, may contribute to the issue. These changes are generally subtle, however, and don’t greatly affect quality of life. In fact, some areas of cognition, including vocabulary and verbal reasoning, may even improve as we get older.

Dementia, on the other hand, is considered abnormal brain aging resulting in severe cognitive decline. Memory, problem-solving ability, and even the ability to communicate can be affected. Abnormal brain aging can also impact the body’s motor system, resulting in falls and tremors.

Scientists, then, have long been studying the brain with the goal of promoting healthier brain aging. While much is known about risk factors for accelerated brain aging, less has been uncovered to identify ways to prevent cognitive decline.

Previous research has indicated, however, that nutrition may make a difference, which prompted scientists from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to attempt to identify how specific nutrients may play a pivotal role in the healthy aging of the brain. The results of their study were published in the journal npj Aging.


The Study

The team of scientists, led by Aron Barbey, PhD, director of the Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior, enrolled 100 cognitively healthy participants, aged 65–75, who completed a questionnaire that detailed demographic information, body measurements, and physical activity levels. After a fasting period, the researchers collected blood plasma from the participants to analyze nutrient biomarkers. Participants also underwent cognitive assessments and MRI scans.

These tests revealed two types of brain aging among the participants—accelerated and slower-than-expected. Analysis showed that those with slower brain aging had a distinct nutrient profile. The beneficial nutrient blood biomarkers found in participants with healthier brains included a combination of fatty acids (vaccenic, gondoic, alpha-linolenic, elcosapentaenoic, eicosadienoic, and lignoceric acids); antioxidants and carotenoids including cis-lutein, trans-lutein, and zeaxanthin; two forms of vitamin E; and choline. Not coincidentally, this profile is correlated with nutrients found in the Mediterranean diet, which research has previously associated with healthy brain aging.

“We investigated specific nutrient biomarkers, such as fatty acid profiles, known in nutritional science to potentially offer health benefits. This aligns with the extensive body of research in the field demonstrating the positive health effects of the Mediterranean Diet, which emphasizes foods rich in these beneficial nutrients,” Barbey said. “The present study identifies particular nutrient biomarker patterns that are promising and have favorable associations with measures of cognitive performance and brain health.”



The study was one of the first and the largest to combine brain imaging, blood biomarkers, and validated cognitive assessments, rather than food questionnaires, to evaluate the effects of nutrition on brain aging. “The unique aspect of our study lies in its comprehensive approach,” said Barbey, “integrating data on nutrition, cognitive function, and brain imaging. This allows us to build a more robust understanding of the relationship between these factors.”

The researchers will continue to explore this nutrient profile as it relates to healthy brain aging with the goal of developing therapies and interventions to promote brain health. “An important next step involves conducting randomized controlled trials [to] isolate specific nutrients with favorable associations with cognitive function and brain health, and administer them in the form of nutraceuticals,” Barbey said.


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