Unfortunately, as any of our body parts, our brain is aging as well, and based on the latest researches, this process starts much earlier than we can notice the obvious cognitive decline or signs of dementia. However, multiple studies support the viewpoint that the brain aging process can be controlled, at least partially. Some of these studies demonstrate a preventive effect, whereas others show a benefit in reversing the cognitive impairment caused by normal aging or by a specific disease of aging, such as stroke.
Aging precipitates a progressive decline in overall cognitive function. It causes us to lose our ability to store and retrieve from short-term memory and to learn new information. Many neurological diseases are directly related to aging. Aging impacts brain function in several ways, including:
- Damaging effects from years of free-radical exposure
- Changes in lifestyle, diet, and nutrient absorption, leading to deficiencies
- Decrease in levels of key hormones
- Decrease in oxygen available to brain cells because of impaired circulation due to heart disease, smoking, drinking, drug abuse, limited exercise, poor diet, or stress
- Declining energy output of brain cells
It is important to distinguish normal, age-associated mental impairment from conditions such as dementia that signal a disease process. Not all memory difficulties or cognitive complaints indicate the presence of Alzheimer’s disease or any mental disorder. Many memory changes are temporary and are linked to environmental factors such as stress rather than to physiological (bodily) processes. It is also common for older people and those around them to notice memory lapses and to be more concerned about them than younger people, when in fact those lapses may not be any different from those of a younger person who misplaces her keys.
Age-associated mental impairment can have a variety of causes beyond overall aging. Conditions that affect the brain and result in intellectual, behavioral, and psychological dysfunction include the following:
- Medication side effects. Adverse side effects can result from too high or too low a dosage of medications, unusual reactions to medications, or combinations of medications.
- Substance abuse. Abuse of drugs (legal or illegal) and alcohol can cause mental impairment. Older people are less able to tolerate and recover from the use of such substances.
- Metabolic disorders. Thyroid problems, anemias, and nutritional deficiencies-common in older people who have less appetite and less energy to cook and shop, and who absorb fewer nutrients from the food they eat, have a negative impact on mental function.
- Neurological disorders. Multiple Sclerosis and normal-pressure hydrocephalus (increased fluid in the brain) are examples of conditions that affect mental function.
- Infections. The brain is susceptible to viral, bacterial, and fungal infections.
- Trauma. Head trauma can result in transient (concussion) or lasting mental impairment. Trauma is obvious in most but not all cases based on history and examination. Symptoms may include headache, confusion, and lethargy.
- Toxic factors. Exposure to substances such as carbon monoxide and methyl alcohol can cause mental impairment.
- Hormonal changes. In women a fairly sudden drop in the hormone estradiol may lead to symptoms of altered mental function such as mood swings, nervousness, and fatigue. In men, testosterone levels decrease gradually over time, leading to decreased muscle tissue and bone density, increased abdominal fat and cholesterol, deteriorating heart function, and psychological and sexual changes that can impact mental function. In both sexes, the level of the hormone dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) falls precipitously with age.
Depression, stress, and grief are common causes of mental impairment that are transient and treatable. Depression in older people is often overlooked because symptoms are confused with those of a medical illness. Depression is also considered a normal part of aging: the National Mental Health Association reports that over 58% of older adults believe depression accompanies aging. Late-life depression affects about 6 million people, most of them women, but only about 10% of them ever receive treatment for their condition.
Circulatory disorders, such as heart problems or stroke can restrict the oxygen available to brain cells by reducing blood flow. Also, many people who feel fine may have a buildup of plaque in their arteries (atherosclerosis), which can eventually limit the oxygen supply to the brain.
Strokes occur most often in older people: three-fourths occur in people over age 65. Symptoms depend on the part of the brain affected, but can include difficulty moving, talking, and thinking.
It should be noted that normal aging creates a perfusion (circulation) deficit in the brain, so nutrients and drugs that improve cerebral circulation are of critical importance to even healthy humans as they grow older.
Pharmacological and Nutritional Supplements: Memory-Enhancing Nutrients
The most commonly used memory-enhancing nutrients are choline, lecithin, and phosphatidylcholine, which are precursors to the chemical neurotransmitter acetylcholine that carries messages between brain cells. Because acetylcholine helps brain cells communicate with each other it plays an important role in learning and memory. One recent study found that phosphatidylcholine administered with vitamin B12 improved the memory of rats in whom the brain damage had caused memory impairment. Supplement choline, lecithin, and phosphatidylcholine early in the day to maximize improvement in brain productivity throughout the day.
Coenzyme Q10 [CoQ10]
When coenzyme Q10 is orally administered, it is incorporated into the mitochondria of cells throughout the body where it facilitates and regulates the oxidation of fats and sugars into energy.
When coenzyme Q10 was administered to middle-age and old rats, the level of CoQ10 increased by 10% to 40% in the cerebral cortex region of the brain. This increase was sufficient to restore levels of CoQ10 to those seen in young animals.
The conclusion by the scientists was that CoQ10 can exert neuroprotective effects that might be useful in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases. This study showed that short-term supplementation with moderate amounts of CoQ10 produced profound antiaging effects in the brain. The study documented that orally supplemented CoQ10 specifically enhanced metabolic energy levels of brain cells. Aged humans have only 50% of the CoQ10 compared to young adults, thus making CoQ10 one of the most important nutrients for people to supplement.
We recommend: Q 10 PLUS (bioavailable COQ10 plus essential cofactors): A liquid form of CoQ10 with appreciable amounts of phosphatidylcholine and antioxidants. Take one teaspoon after breakfast and one teaspoon after lunch for a quick brain “pick me up” and memory enhancer!
This extract from the “maidenhair tree” improves blood flow, protects against free radicals, and is believed to improve memory. Ginkgo biloba is approved in Germany for the treatment of dementia. A scientific review found it to have cognition-enhancing and antiaging activity, including neuroprotective effects.
In a study of 236 Alzheimer’s patients, Ginkgo biloba extract was found to stabilize or ameliorate dementia. In another study, patients with memory disturbances were supplemented with Ginkgo biloba. Following Ginkgo treatment, 15% of patients reported the total absence of memory disturbance symptoms, and 62% reported remaining symptoms as being mild to moderate.
Treatment with Ginkgo biloba extract can also partially prevent certain harmful, age-related structural changes as well as free radical damage to the mitochondria (where energy is produced in a cell) in the brains of old rats. In fact, another study showed that treating rats with Ginkgo biloba extract not only improved their brain function (learning and memory) but also significantly extended their lifespan. There are over 1200 published studies in the scientific literature on Ginkgo biloba extract.
Studies show acetyl-l-carnitine (ALC) improves memory and learning. In Italy, ALC has been used for years to treat Alzheimer’s disease. Scientists prize this exciting nutrient for its tremendous anti-aging potential and its purported ability to improve cerebral blood flow, alleviate depression and elevate mood. At the cellular level, ALC restores mitochondrial membrane function and membrane fluidity to that of younger organisms.
DMAE is normally present in small amounts in our brains. DMAE is known for its remarkable brain-enhancement effects. It is a naturally-occurring nutrient found in seafood such as anchovies and sardines. Perhaps this explains why fish has often been called brain food. DMAE elevates mood, improves memory and learning, increases intelligence, extends life span of laboratory animals and increases physical energy. DMAE works by accelerating the brain’s synthesis of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which in turn plays a key role in maximizing mental ability as well as in preventing loss of memory in aging adults.
PS plays an important role in maintaining the integrity of brain cell membranes. The breakdown of brain cell membranes prevents glucose and other nutrients from entering the cell. By protecting the integrity of brain cell membranes, phosphatidylserine facilitates the efficient transport of energy-producing nutrients into cells, enhancing brain cell energy metabolism. Abnormalities in the composition of phosphatidylserine have been found in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Clinical studies show serine phosphate derivatives can alleviate abnormal cortisol levels, cognitive decline, senile dementia and mild cases of Alzheimer’s disease.
Vinpocetine has been used increasingly throughout the world in the treatment of cognitive deficits related to normal aging. Vinpocetine is a pharmaceutical extraction from the periwinkle plant.
It is well established that normal aging results in a reduction of blood flow to the brain and a decrease in the metabolic activity of brain cells. Evidence indicates that the neuroprotective action of vinpocetine is related to the ability to maintain brain cell electrical conductivity and to protect against damage caused by excessive release of calcium.
Hydergine is a prescription drug approved by the FDA to treat individuals over age 60 that manifest signs or symptoms of mental incapacity. Hydergine is a popular supplement among health-conscious people seeking to slow age-related mental decline. One study showed that Hydergine causes an increase of superoxide dismutase (SOD) and catalase in the brain while decreasing toxic levels of monoamineoxidase (MAO). SOD and catalase are the body’s natural antioxidants and are considered among the most effective free radical scavengers. Orally ingested SOD and catalase have not proven effective because these antioxidant enzymes are broken down in the stomach.
Another cause of brain aging is the elevation of an enzyme in the brain called monoamine oxidase (MAO). Elevated MAO levels damage brain cells and are a specific cause of age-related neuronal deterioration. Age-related depression has been linked to excessive production of MAO that occurs in the elderly. Drugs that inhibit MAO were widely used in the past to effectively treat depression. MAO- inhibiting drugs are seldom used today because of potential toxicity. Hydergine appears to safely inhibit MAO levels.
Another study showed a mechanism of how Hydergine protects against brain aging and the development of Alzheimer’s disease. This study identified a defect that occurs in brain cell membranes and showed that Hydergine could inhibit these degenerative changes.
Deprenyl (also known as Eldepryl)
Deprenyl has produced dramatic life extension effects in animals, but we are fairly certain that deprenyl alone will not do as well in humans. The reason for this is that in rats, the elevation of monoamine oxidase (MAO) plays a greater role in the aging process than in humans. Deprenyl is a potent, selective inhibitor of MAO-B, the type of MAO that damages brain cells during “normal” aging.
Life Extensionists take deprenyl to help prevent Parkinson’s disease and the symptoms of aging that are very similar to those suffered by Parkinson’s patients. There is solid evidence that deprenyl protects many types of brain cells from premature aging and death. There is also evidence that deprenyl boosts cellular production of SOD and catalase, the natural antioxidant enzymes that are depleted in aging.
Our current protocol calls for 2-5 deprenyl tablets (5 mg) a week for those in their 40s. The older you are, the more deprenyl you should take, but it is advisable not to take more than one 5-mg tablet (or capsule) of deprenyl a day unless you have the early symptoms of Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease. In this case, you should take 10 mg of deprenyl a day under the supervision of a physician.
Nicotinamide Adenine Dinucleotide (NADH)
NADH is a coenzyme that acts as an electron carrier in the body. One recent study concluded that nicotinamide enhances brain choline concentrations by mobilizing choline from choline-containing phospholipids.
Hormones are required to facilitate brain cell energy, maintain proper levels of acetylcholine, and protect brain cell membrane function. Neuro-hormones help restore youthful synchronization within the aging brain. Hormone supplementation is often required to achieve the requisite levels of the neuro-hormones.
Pregnenolone and DHEA improve brain cell activity and enhance memory. (Pregnenolone is converted into DHEA in the body.) DHEA is the most plentiful steroid hormone in the human body. Its concentration plummets with age: its daily production drops from 30 mg at age 20 to less than 6 mg at age 80. DHEA is naturally synthesized in abundance in young people from pregnenolone in the brain and the adrenal glands. It is known to affect the excitability of neurons in the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory. Studies have shown that DHEA not only improves memory deficits, but also relieves depression in older people and increases perceived physical and psychological well-being.
Pregnenolone stimulates the activity of adenylate cyclase, which is needed to activate and regulate cellular energy production. Pregnenolone then regulates the flow of calcium through the cell membrane. The pattern of calcium ion exchange may determine how memories are encoded by neurons.
The hormones testosterone and estrogen play important roles in maintaining neurological function. Recent studies indicate that estrogen may be an effective treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, and that estrogen supplementation may protect women from Alzheimer’s and other neurologic diseases.
Melatonin, a naturally occurring hormone produced in the brain’s pineal gland, also enhances cognitive function. It is one of the body’s most potent natural antioxidants, making it ideal to prevent age-related dementias such as Alzheimer’s disease that are thought to be caused, or at least exacerbated, by a lifetime of free-radical damage. Melatonin easily enters the brain from the bloodstream.
Vitamins can protect and enhance cognitive function. B vitamins in particular play an integral role in the functioning of the nervous system and help the brain synthesize chemicals that affect moods. A balanced complex of the B vitamins is also essential for energy and for balancing hormone levels.
In a 6-year study to determine the relationship between nutritional status and cognitive performance in 137 elderly people, several significant associations were observed between cognition and vitamin status. Higher present and past intake of vitamins A, C, E, and B complex were significantly related to better performance on abstraction and visuospatial tests.
The typical American diet does not always provide these essential vitamins, at least in high doses. Because vitamin C and the B complex are water soluble and excreted from the body daily, they must be replenished daily. Older people are at greater risk for vitamin deficiency because they tend to eat less of a variety of foods, although their requirements for certain vitamins such as B6 are actually higher. Older people may also have problems with efficient nutrient absorption from food. Even healthy older people often exhibit deficiencies in vitamin B6, vitamin B12, and folate, as well as zinc.
Vitamin B-12 is linked to the production of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that assists memory and learning. It functions in numerous metabolic processes that affect nerve tissue, including the synthesis of neurotransmitters and the formation of the insulating sheath that surrounds many nerves. A vitamin B-2 deficiency can be caused by malabsorption, which is most common in elderly people and in those with digestive disorders. A deficiency in vitamin B-12, which is thought to be more widespread than generally recognized, may result in mood and memory disorders, dementia, neurological damage and fatigue. Vitamin B-12 and folic acid work as a unit. For better absorption, the sublingual form is preferred.
Free radicals are atoms or groups of atoms that can cause damage to cells by a process known as oxidation, which impairs the immune system and leads to infections and degenerative diseases. Free radicals occur in heated oils (frying), air pollutants, smoke, radiation, environmental toxins, and processed foods, and are also released in the human body through sun exposure and stress. Antioxidants neutralize free radicals and help prevent such free-radical damage as normal brain aging. Their destructive activity has been implicated in many disease processes, including stroke and heart disease.
A recent study published in a premier American medical journal compared groups of older people over time and at a given moment with regard to antioxidant intake and memory performance. The study found that free recall, recognition, and vocabulary were significantly related to vitamin C and beta carotene levels. The levels of these antioxidants were found to be significant predictors of cognitive function even after controlling for possible confounding variables such as differences in education, age, and gender.
Vitamin E & Selenium
Vitamin E is important to the maintenance of good mental functioning bexause it protects the cells of the brain as well as those of the entire body. The cells in the brain and skin have a higher percentage of fat than the other cells in your body. The fats in these tissues are primarily the highly unsaturated essential fatty acids that are so easily oxidized. Vitamin E is the primary antioxidant that protects these cells from free radical attack, damage, and aging.
Our modern industrial society is environmentally much more toxic than in any other time in history. Toxic metals affect the brain and nervous system before they affect the other organs of the body. These metals are absorbed into our systems through the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the water we drink. Studies show that we have accumulated approximately one thousand times more lead in our bodies than people living sixteen hundred years ago. The mineral selenium has become an extremely important nutrient in our diet since it is one to the most powerful detoxifiers of poisonous heavy metals.
Age-associated mental impairment can range in severity from forgetfulness to senility to dementia. It can be caused by a wide variety of specific disease processes, many of which are treatable, or by life events, such as the loss of a loved one. It can also result from brain aging. Whatever its form or cause, it need not be accepted as a consequence of growing older.
Behavioral modifications, such as increased physical and mental activity and a healthy diet, can improve mental function both directly and indirectly by enhancing overall health. Memory can also be improved by using aids such as lists and routines, and by making connections to existing knowledge. Age-associated mental impairment can be treated safely and effectively with memory- enhancing nutrients that increase available acetylcholine, brain cell energy boosters (including naturally occurring substances like acetyl-L-carnitine, ginkgo biloba extract, Coenzyme Q10, NADH, and phosphatidylserine, as well as FDA- approved and offshore drugs), hormones, and vitamins that become deficient (especially in older people), and antioxidants.