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Insidiously, adult Americans may be losing up to .4% of their brain volume due to brain atrophy (brain shrinkage) each year. (1) While these levels of brain shrinkage are a major concern, researchers believe that this trend can be slowed or possibly stopped. (4)
Researchers have linked a decrease in brain volume over time to increased risk of cognitive decline, cardiovascular issues and, in one study, a whopping 181% increased risk of mood instability. (3)
In this article, I will review some of the latest nutritional strategies that have been found to slow the process of brain shrinkage with age. As I review the research on what may cause the aging brain to literally shrink in size and function, I’ve found a significant amount of evidence pointing to three major accelerants: diet, digestion, and blood sugar.
The Smoking Gun
In one study, accelerated loss of brain volume was tied to higher blood sugar levels as measured by a HbA1c blood test, which measures the rate of glycation to determine a 3-month average blood sugar level. (2)
Glycation has been found to be one of the body’s most degenerative processes. It is a result of higher blood sugar levels that can still be within the normal ranges. Excess sugar in the blood can stick to proteins in the blood. This sugar is particularly fond of the collagen and elastin proteins, which support the health and elasticity of the skin; both the inner skin (walls of the arteries) and outer skin (fine lines). Glycation end-products have been found like a smoking gun at the sites of just about every serious health concern and sign of degeneration in the body.
More and more studies are finding that fasting blood sugar levels still within the normal range were linked to brain shrinkage and accelerated aging. (7)
A study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that fasting blood sugars that crept up toward the higher end of the normal range (95mg/dL and higher) were associated with a higher risk of cognitive decline. (5)
In another study, fasting blood sugars at the higher end of the normal range were linked to increased risk of cognitive decline due to blood sugar-related vascular issues – which are the hallmark of glycation. (6)
To help maintain stable blood sugar, I suggest taking your blood sugar regularly with a home glucometer. Being proactive and getting direct feedback from your daily blood sugars allows you to determine how your diet or poor lifestyle choices affect your blood sugar levels. For more information on this, please download my free Blood Sugar eBook.
One Vitamin Away From a Better Brain
A recent study revealed that vitamin B12 may protect against the actual shrinkage of the brain as we age. The study measured 107 people from ages 61-87 with brain scans and MRIs over the course of five years.
The study found that people who had higher vitamin B12 levels were less likely to experience brain shrinkage compared with those who had lower levels of the vitamin in their blood. (8) None of the people in the study had vitamin B12 deficiency – suggesting that you don’t necessarily have to be deficient in B12 to see brain shrinkage. Low B12 levels within the normal ranges are still something you may want to address.
In a 3-year Swedish study on 370 healthy adults who were at least 75 years of age, those with even slightly low levels of vitamin B12 and folate were twice as likely to have cognitive and memory concerns compared to those with normal levels of these vitamins. (9)
Numerous studies suggest that supplementing with vitamin B12 may slow brain shrinkage related to aging and help maintain cognitive function. In one study on B12, folic acid and B6 supplementation, age-related brain shrinkage slowed by up to 50% of the rate of shrinkage prior to supplementation. (10)
Read more about vitamin B12 and brain shrinkage: http://lifespa.com/is-your-brain-shrinking/.
Your Digestion-Dependent Brain
The problem is that B12 is a very large and difficult vitamin to digest. It requires an especially strong amount of stomach acid to release it from the protein food source. In most people, this stomach acid is too weak to be effective. The stomach acid is also needed to make another protein called the “Intrinsic Factor,” which carries the B12 into the blood. For the B12 to be efficiently absorbed into the blood, the villi of the small intestine must be healthy – which is rarely the case.
To get your digestion in tip-top shape, please check out my series of articles on perfecting digestion.
Can You Improve Brain Function With Diet?
Omega-3 fatty acids play a critical role in the brain cell membranes. The two most powerful and well-studied omega-3 fatty acids are EPA and DHA, with DHA being highly concentrated in the brain cell walls. Omega-3 fatty acids play a huge role in brain, mood and cognitive function.
Unfortunately, as folks age, the concentration of omega-3 fatty acids in the brain decline, putting the brain at risk for age-related degenerative and cognitive decline. (11) Studies also show that people with higher omega-3 concentrations in the brain actually had bigger brains! (12)
It is surprising and somewhat scary to see research reminding us that our brains are actually shrinking as we age. Most of us are not aware of it or the risks that go along with a smaller brain. Vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids are common deficiencies in most Americans, and blood sugar concerns have been reported as the world’s next big epidemic. Breaking the sugar spell and increasing B12 and omega-3s, whether it be with diet or supplements, may be a wise choice to ward off the woes of age-related brain shrinkage.