Smarts in a Bottle
Several more vitamins that play a role in brain function may be in short supply in your brain.
In one study of 3,000 American adults ages 26 to 83, almost one out of five was deficient in vitamin B12, a vitamin that helps protect your neurons (it's found naturally in animal products). After age 50, many people lose the ability to absorb natural B12 from food, which is why the Institute of Medicine recommends getting it from either a multivitamin or fortified cereal.
Without folate, you risk depression, short-term memory loss, and dementia, according to a Canadian study. Although you still should eat lots of folate-rich fruits and vegetables, synthetic folic acid is far easier for your body to absorb. Taking a multivitamin containing 400 micrograms of this B vitamin (the Daily Value) is the best way to ensure you get that amount, which, along with vitamins B12 and B6, helps to reduce the amount of the amino acid homocysteine in your blood. (The Daily Value for B12 is 6 micrograms; for B6, it's 2 mg.)
Small elevations of homocysteine are linked to heart attack, and researchers are now finding a possible connection to blood vessel disease and mental decline. In one study of men ages 54 to 81, those who had low blood levels of folate and B12 and high levels of homocysteine did a worse job of copying shapes than those whose homocysteine was normal.
Also new on the horizon, says Miller, is research on the relationship between homocysteine and Alzheimer's disease. "At the same age, for instance, people with Alzheimer's have higher homocysteine than those without it."
There may also be a connection between Alzheimer's and low levels of vitamin D, another nutrient of which many Americans, especially those over 50, don't get enough. "Early-onset Alzheimer's may be characterized by vitamin D deficiency," says Philip Landfield, PhD, chairman of the department of molecular and biomedical pharmacology at the University of Kentucky Medical Center in Lexington. (Early-onset Alzheimer's can occur as early as 50.)
In his review of Alzheimer's patient records published in 1991, Landfield found that those with early-onset Alzheimer's also had low blood levels of calcium and phosphorus, possibly caused by low levels of vitamin D, which is responsible for transporting calcium to and from the blood and bones.
Following up with aging rats, Landfield found that those supplemented with vitamin D had more nerve cells in the hippocampus area of their brains. The hippocampus is the center of memory and the section of the brain damaged by Alzheimer's.
Lab tests reported in 2004 reveal that vitamin D can rescue human brain cells from insults heaped on them, a benefit that's backed up by two Japanese studies. And another study shows that vitamin D injected into rats protects against stroke, which is the brain's equivalent of a heart attack.
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