Keep your brain in shape

The other day, I forgot where I left my car keys and sunglasses. Then, I forgot the name of a patient I’ve known for 30 years. Sometimes, these senior moments seem to be happening too frequently. Today, with so much talk about Alzheimer’s disease, it’s easy to worry about losing it. But there are ways to keep the brain functioning the way it’s supposed to. One answer is as close as the vitamin bottle.

But how do vitamins help the brain? There’s good evidence that high levels of cholesterol are not the only factor in clogging arteries. A substance called homocysteine can also narrow arteries, which reduces the amount of oxygen to the brain. Vitamins B12, folic acid and B6 decrease the level of homocysteine in the blood.

A once-a-day cure
Here’s a story from Tufts University that shows you don’t have to be a neurologist to understand what’s happening to the brain. Dr. Robert Russell, a gastroenterologist and director of Tufts Human Nutrition Research Center, cured a woman with a single pill.

The patient, 70 years of age, had reached the point where she seemed unable to remember anything from one moment tthe next. Her family was frantic that she was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Fortunately, Russell considered that her deteriorating mental status might be due to a deficiency of vitamin B12. We’ve known for years that aging causes the stomach’s lining to thin, which decreases the production of hydrochloric acid. And without sufficient acid, vitamin B12 cannot be absorbed from the food we eat.

Russell prescribed tablets of B12 (which can be absorbed without the presence of stomach acid), and the patient’s memory was largely restored. Russell admits this was an unusual case, but it does dramatically show how vital nutrition is for a normally functioning brain.

The Tufts report also shows that people having higher levels of the B vitamin folate could remember details of short stories better than those with lower levels of this vitamin. And they were able to copy geometric drawings better.

Yet another study revealed that those with high levels of vitamin B6 were more adept at listening to a series of numbers and then repeating them backwards.

There is a clear message here. We know that one person in five over 60 and two in five over 80 can’t absorb B12 from food. So if you’re over 60, it’s prudent to take a vitamin pill that contains these B vitamins.

Many factors can dull the brain
Some people set the stage for a rusty brain by not using it. The brain, like any muscle, is a “use-it-or-lose-it” piece of machinery.

A study at Western Reserves School of Medicine showed that those involved in intellectual pursuits, such as playing an instrument, working on puzzles or reading a newspaper, were four times less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. And if your main pursuit is watching the boob tube, you have a greater risk of Alzheimer’s later in life.

Getting enough sleep and exercise help, too. Like everyone else, it’s hard to think straight if you’re tired. And get enough exercise. Researchers at the University of Illinois showed that regular exercise increases blood supply to the brain.

Up the intellectual ante
And it would be naive not to realize that genetics plays a major role. The old saying, You can’t be too careful who your parents are, still holds true.

With parents that lived to a ripe old age along with an agile brain, I feel a little reassured when I forget where I left my car keys. But I still want to hedge my bets. That why every morning I reach for Jamieson’s B-100 that contains adequate amounts of folic acid, B6 and B12. It’s a cheap insurance policy that helps protect both the brain and the heart from too much homocysteine.