Face it: We all slow down as we age. Metabolism, endurance, energy, memory— once past the peak reproductive years, the body just doesn’t respond like it used to. It’s not your imagination; research has documented the changes. Hormonal output lags, the ability to neutralize oxidative free radicals breaks down, and cells accumulate genetic damage. Telomeres, the protective endcaps of DNA strands, shorten.
For many Americans it is not the end of life that is most disconcerting, but rather the prospect of losing cognitive faculties, ambulatory function, and independence in the golden years. So as you age, the question becomes whether you are going to allow yourself to ride that slippery slope toward senility or change course to optimize the significant potential you have to live vibrantly and independently.
While there is little one can do to reverse serious diseases such as Parkinson’s, ALS, or Alzheimer’s (even though research is beginning to make progress in slowing these conditions down), there are plenty of things you can do to resist the common forces of aging so you can function as close to your optimal potential as possible—which for most of us means a pretty good quality of life.
In this regard, diet and lifestyle (go figure) are the major players at the table. Nourishing your body with foods that help it to attack oxidative forces, reduce inflammation, and supply raw materials for regeneration is a key strategy for both brain and body. Thus, chips, fries, heat-damaged fats, and glycated (read: sugar-damaged) proteins are best left in the rearview mirror.
Healthy fats from cold-water fish, flaxseed, and nuts provide raw material needed for the brain’s cell membranes, while whole fruits and vegetables infuse antioxidant potential and support for creating enzymes and neurotransmitters.
Exercise is a must. The increased blood flow that results from movement bathes your brain in the oxygen and nutrients it needs to flourish. But that is not all it is good for, according to Mark Underwood, president of Quincy Bioscience. The same factors that are released to stimulate muscle repair after intense exercise also stimulate the brain.
“Exercise-induced blood flow to me is preferable to supplement-induced blood flow,” says Underwood. “If you go and work out—say you lift weights—your body is tearing down muscles and, over the next day or two, you are rebuilding the muscles. So your metabolism changes, your blood flow changes, and your body starts to secrete different factors that get circulated in the blood supply to help your muscles regrow. Those factors are also circulating through your brain. There is some evidence that the brain can grow as a result of exercise. I think that is really fascinating, as the brain technically is not a muscle at all, but yet it responds to vigorous exercise.”
Although vigorous workouts are not everyone’s cup of tea, Underwood stresses that any effort to increase exercise is helpful—at any age.
“It does not need to be super-intense,” he says. “There are studies with older people who just take up a walking program, maybe three times a week, and they start to see improvements in their cognitive abilities.”
Stepping It Up
For those seeking to enhance mental clarity, sharpen their memory, and improve cognition, research has shown that targeted functional supplements can be an effective resource.
“Food is a great source of dietary needs, but some foods do not provide adequate amounts of a particular to see health benefits,” says Elyse Lovett, marketing manager at Kyowa Hakko USA. “For example, citicoline is only found in small amounts in foods. The highest amounts are found in organ foods, like liver and brain, which are not typical of the American diet.”
Underwood agrees that relying upon diet alone presents some challenges: “In the Midwest, you have to go a ways before you get to an ocean to get fresh fish. Fresher is always better, so sometimes it is difficult to find the right nutrition in your food—even if you are pretty disciplined about seeking it out.”
For these reasons, turning to a supplement can be a viable alternative to eating piles of a particular food, gagging down unappealing foods, or spending exorbitant amounts of money to access fresh foods that grow best elsewhere.
Three supplements that have demonstrated effectiveness in supporting brain structure and function are DHA, citicoline, and apoaequorin.
DHA, or docosahexaenoic acid, is an omega-3 fatty acid that is important as a structural component of the brain, comprising approximately 40 percent of its weight. Within the cell membrane, DHA affects the transport of choline, which is a precursor for acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter, and phosphatidylcholine, another important fat in cell membranes. DHA can be found in fishoil-based supplements. For a vegan alternative, flaxseed contains a precursor that the body can convert to DHA (although usually inefficiently).
“Citicoline is a nucleotide that plays an important role in cellular metabolism,” says Lovett. To support brain function, it can increase phospholipid synthesis, improve mitochondrial function, and increase catecholamine synthesis. Lovett reports that clinical research on the Cognizin brand of citicoline supports memory function and healthy cognition through energy production in brain cells. Citicoline also supports the activity of nerves in the brain that respond to acetylcholine and helps maintain normal levels of acetylcholine, an important brain chemical that regulates memory and cognitive function.
Unlike the previous two supplements, which are related to fats, apoaequorin is a protein derived from jellyfish and is not encountered in a typical diet. While most people are familiar with the mineral calcium as a primary constituent of bone mass, calcium is also very important to our bodies in several other ways.
One of these is functions is cellular communication. To aid in this communications process, the body produces molecules called calcium-binding proteins. Apoaequorin fits into this classification. As it ages, less of these calcium-binding proteins are produced by the body. According to Underwood, “Where diminish, brain cells become susceptible to not working very well. They can become inactive and ultimately die because of the lack of protection that these proteins provide.”
Underwood says that randomized controlled trials conducted on the Prevagen brand have demonstrated that apoaequorin is helpful in protecting brain cells and, more importantly, to actually stimulate improved cognition.
Both Underwood and Lovett stress the importance of choosing a high-quality supplement that has solid research behind it and is delivered in clinically relevant doses. As with any food-based regimen, results will build over time and consistent use. Users should be cautioned not to expect any of these supplements to have the immediacy of a drug or to resolve symptoms related to a medical diagnosis. However, supplements such as these can play a significant role in sharpening your focus, speeding recall, and improving clarity—ultimately helping your brain to function at its optimal potential.