How To Prevent Memory Loss?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in current health articles, Drugs and Health, Food and Health, Vitamins and Health

 A New Study Shows B Vitamins and Omega-3s May Prevent Memory Loss

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

how to prevent memory lossWant to know how to prevent memory loss? Every once in a while a breakthrough study comes along that has the potential to change paradigms. A recent study (Jerneren et al, Am J Clin Nutr, 102: 215-221, 2015) looking at the potential of B vitamins and omega-3s to slow brain shrinkage in the elderly is just such a study. It has the potential to forever change the way we think about preserving brain health as we age.

One of the most terrifying aspects of aging is the thought that we might literally lose our minds. On one hand, it seems to be an almost inevitable part of the aging process. Every year millions of older Americans develop mild cognitive impairment, and as they age many of them progress on to dementia or Alzheimer disease. In fact, one recent study (Plassman et al, Ann Neurol, 70: 418-426, 2014) estimated that for individuals 72 and older in the United States every 6 years:

  • 8 million will develop mild cognitive impairment.
  • 4 million will develop dementia.
  • 3 million will develop Alzheimer disease.

Unfortunately, there is no effective drug treatment for preventing this cognitive decline, and there don’t appear to be any promising new drugs on the horizon. So it is only natural to ask whether there are diet and lifestyle changes that might reduce the rate of cognitive decline as we age.

As I discussed in previous issues of “Health Tips From the Professor” there are clinical studies suggesting that B vitamins  and omega-3 fatty acids can both slow the brain shrinkage and cognitive decline associated with aging. Unfortunately, there are also clinical studies that have come up empty. They have found no effect of B vitamins or omega-3 fatty acids on brain shrinkage or cognitive decline. Because of these conflicting clinical results, many experts are simply not ready to endorse natural approaches for preventing cognitive decline.

That’s what makes the current study (Jerneren et al, Am J Clin Nutr, 102: 215-221, 2015) paradigm-changing. If this study is correct, you need both B vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids together to prevent cognitive decline. Neither one will work without the other.

That would explain a lot! The previous studies have not been designed to test the effects of both B vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids simultaneously. Whether or not the diets of previous study participants were adequate with respect to B vitamins and omega-3s was a matter of pure chance. If the diets were adequate in both B vitamins and omega-3s, the study outcome might be positive. If the diets were only adequate in just one or the other, the outcome would almost assuredly be negative.

Why Might B Vitamins and Omega-3s Both Be Required for Brain Health?

It is easy to understand why B vitamins and omega-3s each might be important for preventing cognitive decline individually. Cognitive decline is closely associated with elevated levels of homocysteine, a toxic amino acid metabolite, and multiple clinical studies have shown that the combination of folic acid, vitamin B12 and vitamin B6 is effective at lowering homocysteine levels.

The omega-3 fatty acids are an integral part of the myelin sheath that coats our neurons. You can think of myelin as being like the plastic coating on an electrical wire that allows the electrical current to travel from one end of the wire to the other without shorting out. Myelin plays essentially the same role for our neurons.

But what is the possible connection between B vitamins and omega-3s with regard to brain health? The authors of this study had an interesting hypothesis. It turns out that when homocysteine levels are elevated due to B vitamin deficiency methionine levels and the levels of a number of downstream metabolites, including phosphatidylcholine, are reduced – and phosphatidylcholine is what delivers omega-3 fatty acids to the brain.

If their hypothesis is correct, adequate levels of B vitamins are required to deliver omega-3 fatty acids to the brain. That means that omega-3 fatty acids would only be effective at preventing brain shrinkage and/or cognitive decline in studies where the subjects were receiving adequate B vitamins as well.

Conversely, if we assume, as the authors suggested, that the real role of B vitamins is to assure the presence of enough phosphatidylcholine to deliver omega-3 fatty acids to the brain, B vitamins would be effective only in clinical studies where the subjects were also getting sufficient omega-3s from their diet.

B Vitamins and Omega-3s Together May Be How To Prevent Memory Loss

vitamins help reduce cognitive declineThe study itself included 168 adults over the age of 70 (average age = 77) with mild cognitive impairment at the beginning of the study. Half of them were given a high dose B vitamin supplement (800 ug folic acid, 500 ug vitamin B12, and 20 mg vitamin B6), and the other half were given a placebo.

Brain MRI scans were performed at the beginning of the study and again 2 years later to measure brain volume. Blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids were assessed at the beginning of the study. When the data were analyzed at the end of the study, the subjects with blood omega-3 levels of >590 umole/L were classified as having high omega-3 status, and subjects with blood omega-3 levels <390 umole/L were classified as having low omega-3 status.

The results were pretty striking:

  • B vitamin treatment reduced brain shrinkage by up to 70% over a two year period in adults over the age of 70.
  • The B vitamin treatment was only effective when the subjects were deficient in B vitamins at the beginning of the study, as indicated by elevated homocysteine levels.
  • The B vitamin treatment was also only effective in subjects with high omega-3 status. The B vitamin treatment had no benefit in subjects with low omega-3 status.

What Is The Significance Of This Study?

In today’s scientific world, “gold standard” clinical studies are considered to be those in which a single variable is evaluated in a double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial. Unfortunately, this reductionist approach can sometimes lead to misleading and confusing results.

For example, I once attended a session in which a world renowned expert was giving his talk on colon cancer. He said, “I can show you, unequivocally, that colon cancer risk is significantly decreased by a lifestyle that includes a high-fiber diet, a low-fat diet, adequate calcium, adequate B-vitamins, exercise and weight control. But I can’t show you that any one of them, by themselves, is effective.”

The question that came to me as I heard him speak was: “What’s the message that a responsible scientist or responsible health professional should be giving to their patients or the people that they’re advising?” You’ve heard experts saying: “Don’t worry about the fat” “Don’t worry about calcium.” “Don’t worry about B-vitamins.” “Don’t worry about fiber.” “None of them can be shown to decrease the risk of colon cancer.” Is that the message that we should be giving people? Or should we really be saying what that doctor said many years ago – that a lifestyle that includes all of those things significantly decreases the risk of colon cancer?

Similarly, in a recent “Health Tips From the Professor” I shared a study, Alzheimers Hope, showing that a holistic program involving exercise, a healthy diet, socialization and memory training significantly reduced cognitive decline in the elderly. Once again, it has been very difficult to reproducibly show that any of those interventions individually prevent cognitive decline.

That is what makes the current study so exciting. It is a single study, and it is a relatively small study. It definitely needs to be repeated. However, it has the potential to be a paradigm-shifting study.

Previous studies looking at the effect of B vitamins and omega-3s on brain shrinkage and/or cognitive decline have been inconsistent. Many have shown a benefit, but some have not. But, until now, none of the studies have looked at B vitamins and omega-3s together. If this study is correct, all future studies should examine the effect of both B vitamins and omega-3s together. The paradigm will have been forever changed.

Does It Matter?

The important question is whether this is just an academic discussion or does it really matter? If most older adults were getting adequate amounts of omega-3s and B vitamins in their diet, this would merely be an academic discussion. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

omega-3s help prevent cognitive declineOur oceans and rivers are becoming more and more polluted, and many people are avoiding fish because of concerns about heavy metal or PCB contamination. There is also an increasing emphasis on eating “sustainable” fish. That usually means the fish are farm raised, and farm raised fish are the most likely to be contaminated with PCBs, which is unfortunate. For example, I recently went to a nice restaurant that had a delicious sounding salmon dish on their menu. They could guarantee that the salmon was sustainably raised, but they couldn’t guarantee it was PCB-free. I chose not to eat the salmon.

It is no wonder that many adults aren’t getting enough omega-3s in their diet. In a recent “Health Tips From the Professor,” Do women get enough omeg-3 during pregnancy I reported a study showing that a shocking 75% of pregnant and lactating Canadian women were not getting enough omega-3s in their diet! Other studies suggest those of us in the United States don’t do much better.

We don’t do much better with respect to B vitamins either. For example:

  • The most frequent cause of B12 deficiency is the age related loss of the ability to absorb vitamin B12 in the upper intestine. This affects 10-30% of people over the age of 50.
  • Chronic use of acid-suppressing medications such as Prilosec, Nexium, Tagamet, Pepcid and Zantac also decreases B12 absorption and increases the risk of B12 deficiency. Millions of Americans use those drugs on a daily basis.
  • Overall, B12 deficiency has been estimated to affect about 40% of people over 60 years of age.
  • Deficiency of the enzyme methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR) substantially increases the requirement for folic acid. About 10% of the US population has this enzyme deficiency.
  • About 25% of Americans have low blood levels of B6

Clearly, this is not just an academic argument. Millions of older Americans are deficient in B vitamins or omega-3s or both.

 

The Bottom Line

  • A recently published study looked at the effect of high dose B vitamin supplementation on brain shrinkage over a two year periods in adults over 70 (average age 77) with mild cognitive impairment at the beginning of the study. This study differed from all previous studies in that it also measured omega-3 fatty acid levels in the blood at the beginning of the study to assess omega-3 status.
  • B vitamin treatment reduced brain shrinkage by up to 70% over the two year period compared to placebo.
  • The B vitamin treatment was only effective when the subjects were deficient in B vitamins at the beginning of the study, as indicated by elevated homocysteine levels.
  • The B vitamin treatment was also only effective in subjects with high omega-3 status at the beginning of the study. If they had low omega-3 status, the B vitamin supplementation was ineffective.
  • This study has the potential to forever shift the paradigm for preventing cognitive decline in the elderly. Past studies have looked at the effect of B vitamins and omega-3s at reducing cognitive decline separately, and these studies have been inconsistent. If this study is correct, consistent benefits will only be seen when both B vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids are present at adequate levels.
  • This is a concern because millions of older Americans are deficient in B vitamins or omega-3s or both.
  • How to prevent memory loss? Of course, B vitamins and omega-3s are just part of a holistic approach for preventing cognitive decline. Weight control, exercise, a healthy diet, adequate sleep, socialization, and memory training (mental exercise) are also important if we want to retail our full mental capacity into our 90s and beyond.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Comments (2)

  • karen klemm

    |

    why can i not make a copy of this e-mail please tell me

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Karen,

      I am not tech savy enough to answer that question, but all of the emails that subscribers like you receive are archived at https://healthtipsfromtheprofessor.com. Just type a key word from the article title into the search box to pull up the article. From there you can either copy the article or the URL for the article depending on what you want to do with the article. I only ask that you not modify the article in any way before you pass it along.

      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

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Latest Article

High Protein Diets and Weight Loss

Posted October 16, 2018 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do High Protein Diets Reduce Fat And Preserve Muscle?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Healthy Diet food group, proteins, include meat (chicken or turkAre high protein diets your secret to healthy weight loss? There are lots of diets out there – high fat, low fat, Paleolithic, blood type, exotic juices, magic pills and potions. But recently, high protein diets are getting a lot of press. The word is that they preserve muscle mass and preferentially decrease fat mass.

If high protein diets actually did that, it would be huge because:

  • It’s the fat – not the pounds – that causes most of the health problems.
  • Muscle burns more calories than fat, so preserving muscle mass helps keep your metabolic rate high without dangerous herbs or stimulants – and keeping your metabolic rate high helps prevent both the plateau and yo-yo (weight regain) characteristic of so many diets.
  • When you lose fat and retain muscle you are reshaping your body – and that’s why most people are dieting to begin with.

So let’s look more carefully at the recent study that has been generating all the headlines (Pasiakos et al, The FASEB Journal, 27: 3837-3847, 2013).

The Study Design:

This was a randomized control study with 39 young (21), healthy and fit men and women who were only borderline overweight (BMI = 25). These volunteers were put on a 21 day weight loss program in which calories were reduced by 30% and exercise was increased by 10%. They were divided into 3 groups:

  • One group was assigned a diet containing the RDA for protein (about 14% of calories in this study design).
  • The second group’s diet contained 2X the RDA for protein (28% of calories)
  • The third group’s diet contained 3X the RDA for protein (42% of calories)

In the RDA protein group carbohydrate was 56% of calories, and fat was 30% of calories. In the other two groups the carbohydrate and fat content of the diets was decreased proportionally.

Feet_On_ScaleWhat Did The Study Show?

  • Weight loss (7 pounds in 21 days) was the same on all 3 diets.
  • The high protein (28% and 42%) diets caused almost 2X more fat loss (5 pounds versus 2.8 pounds) than the diet supplying the RDA amount of protein.
  • The high protein (28% and 42%) diets caused 2X less muscle loss (2.1 pounds versus 4.2 pounds) than the diet supplying the RDA amount of protein.
  • In case you didn’t notice, there was no difference in overall results between the 28% (2X the RDA) and 42% (3X the RDA) diets.

Pros And Cons Of The Study:

  • The con is fairly obvious. The participants in this study were all young, healthy and were not seriously overweight. If this were the only study of this type one might seriously question whether the results were applicable to middle aged, overweight coach potatoes. However, there have been several other studies with older, more overweight volunteers that have come to the same conclusion – namely that high protein diets preserve muscle mass and enhance fat loss.
  • The value of this study is that it defines for the first time the upper limit for how much protein is required to preserve muscle mass in a weight loss regimen. 28% of calories is sufficient, and there appear to be no benefit from increasing protein further. I would add the caveat that there are studies suggesting that protein requirements for preserving muscle mass may be greater in adults 50 and older.

The Bottom Line:

1)    Forget the high fat diets, low fat diets, pills and potions. High protein diets (~2X the RDA or 28% of calories) do appear to be the safest, most effective way to preserve muscle mass and enhance fat loss in a weight loss regimen.

2)     That’s not a lot of protein, by the way. The average American consumes almost 2X the RDA for protein on a daily basis. However, it is significantly more protein than the average American consumes when they are trying to lose weight. Salads and carrot sticks are great diet foods, but they don’t contain much protein.

3)     Higher protein intake does not appear to offer any additional benefit – at least in young adults.

4)     Not all high protein diets are created equal. What some people call high protein diets are laden with saturated fats or devoid of carbohydrate. The diet in this study, which is what I recommend, had 43% healthy carbohydrates and 30% healthy fats.

5)    These diets were designed to give 7 pounds of weight loss in 21 days – which is what the experts recommend. There are diets out there promising faster weight loss but they severely restrict calories and/or rely heavily on stimulants, they do not preserve muscle mass, and they often are not safe. In addition they are usually temporary.  I do not recommend them.

6)    This level of protein intake is safe for almost everyone. The major exception would be people with kidney disease, who should always check with their doctor before increasing protein intake. The only other caveat is that protein metabolism creates a lot of nitrogenous waste, so you should drink plenty of water to flush that waste out of your system. But, water is always a good idea.

7)     The high protein diets minimized, but did not completely prevent, muscle loss. Other studies suggest that adding the amino acid leucine to a high protein diet can give 100% retention of muscle mass in a weight loss regimen – but that’s another story for another day.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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