Help Forestall Forgetfulness
December 6, 2001
Fortification of grain products with
the B vitamin folate may help reduce memory loss in the over-60 set.
Thats the implication from a careful look at data from a recent
nationwide health and nutrition survey,
Researchers at the Jean Mayer USDA
Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston, Mass., were
looking for a relationship between blood homocysteine levels and memory loss.
Earlier, their research had established that homocysteine levels were higher in
elderly people with low intakes of B vitamins, especially folate.
They had also validated reports that homocysteine--a byproduct of our own
amino acid metabolism--increases risk of stroke, which is a major player in the
loss of cognitive function. But they wanted to see if high homocysteine levels
or low B vitamin status had a more subtle influence in memory loss among people
over age 60.
Thats because B vitamins are involved in the synthesis of chemicals
crucial to brain function, according to nutritional epidemiologist
who led the study. Or, homocysteine itself might be toxic to nerve cells.
Morris collaborated with Paul Jacques, Irwin Rosenberg and Jacob Selhub at the
Boston center, which is funded by the Agricultural Research Service,
USDAs chief scientific research
Luckily, the NHANES III included a sensitive test of recall after a short
delay, one that can identify individuals with a milder loss of recall.
Others had reported that homocysteine was related to Alzheimers
disease, as well as to poor cognitive function in elderly both with and without
dementia. Perhaps 75 percent of dementia is due to stroke or Alzheimers
disease, which is now thought to develop from minor strokes. So the researchers
excluded data from people who had suffered a stroke.
Their analysis showed elevated homocysteine levels were associated with
memory loss. But the survey subjects whose blood folate levels were in the
upper half appeared to be protected from memory loss even if their homocysteine
levels were high.
The take-home message: Keep folate levels up. And thats easy now;
virtually all grain products have been fortified with the vitamin since 1998.