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by Sonya Collins
Updated July 8, 2022
When it comes to keeping your mind alert and your thinking clear as you age, the vitamins and nutrients you put in your body are crucial. B vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids are two in particular that may help the brain continue to function at its best into old age. Running low on these nutrients can lead to brain fog and poor memory.
But before you reach for a bottle of supplements to try to make up for any potential deficit, consider this: There’s more scientific evidence to back up the health benefits of vitamins and nutrients that come from food than from pills. In fact, the Global Council on Brain Health, an independent collaborative of scientists, health professionals, scholars and policy experts convened by AARP, reviewed the evidence for the brain health benefits of some 20 vitamins, minerals and other nutrients and found it insufficient to support taking any of them for brain health.
That doesn’t mean supplements couldn’t do you some good. But foods that contain nutrients such as B vitamins and omega-3s bring a bounty of health benefits to the brain.
The benefits of Bs
B vitamins, studies show, play a key role in almost all of the interactions between your cells. Researchers learn a lot about the health benefits of these vitamins by studying people who have extremely low levels of them. Some studies show that many people are running on sub-optimum levels of B, which can lead to poor brain function.
“B12 deficiency, in particular, can cause dementia,” says J. David Spence, M.D., professor of neurology and clinical pharmacology at Western University in London, Ontario. “Low levels of B12 and folic acid [another B vitamin] raise levels of homocysteine, which increases the risk of stroke, which also increases the risk of dementia.”
With only a few exceptions, most people can get all the B vitamins they need from a healthy and varied diet, with no need for supplements. Manufacturers add B vitamins to whole grain breads and cereals. You can also get these nutrients from fruits, vegetables (especially leafy green ones, like spinach and kale) and beans. B12 is the only one you won’t find in these plant-based foods, so some people may need that in another form.
For example, “if someone eats a vegan diet, doctors may suggest a B12 supplement,” says Uma Naidoo, M.D., a nutritional psychiatrist and director of nutritional & lifestyle psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital. However, vegetarians who eat eggs and dairy can still get plenty of B12. Fish, poultry and fortified cereals and nutritional yeasts are good sources, too.
People who avoid meat and eggs should ask their doctor how they can get sufficient levels of B12 in their system.
“Absorption of B12 through an oral supplement, such as a pill or a capsule, is not the most efficient. You may want to ask your doctor about injectable B12,” Naidoo says.
Omega-3s are one of the few types of fat that the body needs but can’t make on its own. You have to get it from food.
“Omega-3s have a good amount of research behind them for keeping the mind healthy,” Naidoo says. “Their main mechanism of action is their anti-inflammatory properties in the brain.”
Inflammation in brain tissue is the suspected cause of many long-term health problems, including Alzheimer’s disease. Omega-3s may help keep inflammation at bay.
Probably the best-known source of omega-3 fatty acids is salmon. You can also get omega-3s from other fatty fish, such as anchovies and halibut. But fish isn’t the only source; vegetable oils, nuts (especially walnuts), flaxseeds, flaxseed oil and leafy vegetables also provide hearty amounts of the nutrient.
“For individuals who don’t consume seafood, leaning on the omega-3s in flaxseeds, hempseeds, chia seeds and walnuts is important,” Naidoo says. “But these don’t get to the brain as efficiently as fat, so consider also supplementing with an algal oil supplement.” These are omega-3 fat supplements that don’t come from fish.
The Global Council on Brain Health agrees that supplements may be necessary for people who don’t eat fish if a person’s personal physician recommends them.
When to add brain-healthy nutrients to your diet
However, a single serving of salmon or a helping of spinach won’t make much of an impact on your memory and thinking skills.
“You’ve got to eat these things consistently — leafy green vegetables, chickpeas, kidney beans, brussels sprouts, salmon — because just eating one piece of salmon isn’t going to improve your memory overnight,” Naidoo says.
Though it takes time to reap the rewards of brain-healthy foods, it’s almost never too late to start eating them.
“There’s always hope,” Naidoo says. “The power to improve your brain is at the end of your fork. Why not give it a chance?”
• “The Real Deal on Brain Health Supplements: GCBH Recommendations on Vitamins, Minerals, and Other Dietary Supplements,”" Global Council on Brain Health, 2019. Read the full report.
• “Low Vitamin B12 Levels: An Underestimated Cause Of Minimal Cognitive Impairment And Dementia,” Cureus, February 2020. In this study of 202 adults with mild cognitive impairment, 84% showed improvement in symptoms and 78% performed better on cognitive tests after three months of supplementation with vitamin B12. Read the full study.
• “Dietary intakes and biomarker patterns of folate, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12 can be associated with cognitive impairment by hypermethylation of redox-related genes NUDT15 and TXNRD1,” Clinical Epigenetics, October 2019. In this study, 2,533 participants were followed for an average of 2.3 years; they took questionnaires about their dietary habits and underwent cognitive tests. Among the researchers’ findings was an association between adequate vitamin B6 intake and better cognitive reserve. As a population study, it shows a correlation but does not prove cause and effect. Read the full study.
• “Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Inflammatory Processes,” Nutrients, March 2010. This scientific paper explores the research behind how the fatty acid composition of cells involved in the inflammatory response affects their function. Read the full paper.
• “Erythrocyte omega-3 fatty acids are inversely associated with incident dementia: Secondary analyses of longitudinal data from the Women's Health Initiative Memory Study (WHIMS),” Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids, June 2017. In this study, researchers analyzed data from a cohort of 6,706 women age 65 and older who were part of the Women's Health Initiative Memory Study (WHIMS) and were followed for a mean of 9.8 years. The researchers found that higher intake of DHA and EPA was associated with a lower risk of dementia. As a population study, it shows a correlation but does not prove cause and effect. Read a summary of the study. (A fee is required to access the full study.)