Recent research suggests that people can take certain dietary, dental and exercise steps to improve their brain health.


Blueberries could have beneficial anti-Alzheimer’s effects, according to new research conducted at the University of Cincinnati Academic Health Center.

“Our new findings corroborate those of previous animal studies and preliminary human studies, adding further support to the notion that blueberries can have a real benefit in improving memory and cognitive function in some older adults,” said Robert Krikorian, Ph.D., leader of the research team, which presented its work recently at the American Chemical Society annual meeting. Blueberries’ effects could be due to flavonoids called anthocyanins, which have been shown to improve animals’ cognition, he added.

Krikorian and colleagues conducted two human studies to follow up on earlier clinical trials. One study involved 47 adults aged at least 68 years who had mild cognitive impairment. The researchers gave them either freeze-dried blueberry powder, which is equivalent to a cup of berries, or a placebo powder once a day for 16 weeks.

“There was improvement in cognitive performance and brain function in those who had the blueberry powder compared with those who took the placebo,” Krikorian said. “The blueberry group demonstrated improved memory and improved access to words and concepts.” The team also conducted functional magnetic resonance imaging, which showed increased brain activity in those who ingested the blueberry powder.

The second study included 94 people aged 62 to 80 years; they were divided into four groups. The participants didn’t have objectively measured cognitive issues, but they subjectively felt their memories were declining. The groups received blueberry powder, fish oil, fish oil and powder or placebo.

“The results were not as robust as with the first study,” Krikorian said. “Cognition was somewhat better for those with powder or fish oil separately, but there was little improvement with memory.” Also, fMRI results also were not as striking for those receiving blueberry powder. Krikorian said that the effect may have been smaller in this case because these participants had less severe issues when they entered the study.

Dental health.

Gum disease and cognitive decline are linked in people with early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, according to the results of a new study led by King’s College London and the University of Southampton.

The observational study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, included 59 participants with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease. Their cognition was assessed, and a blood sample was taken to measure inflammatory markers in their blood. Participants’ dental health was assessed by a dental hygienist who was not aware of the results of the other tests. Fifty-two participants were followed-up at six months when all assessments were repeated.

The presence of gum disease at baseline was associated with a six-fold increase in the rate of cognitive decline in participants over the six-month follow-up period of the study. Gum disease at baseline also was associated with a relative increase in the pro-inflammatory state over the six-month follow-up period. The authors conclude that gum disease is associated with an increase in cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s disease, possibly via mechanisms linked to the body’s inflammatory response.

“These are very interesting results which build on previous work we have done that shows that chronic inflammatory conditions have a detrimental effect on disease progression in people with Alzheimer’s disease,” said Clive Holmes, Ph.D., senior author from the University of Southampton. “Our study was small and lasted for six months, so further trials need to be carried out to develop these results. However, if there is a direct relationship between periodontitis and cognitive decline, as this current study suggests, then treatment of gum disease might be a possible treatment option for Alzheimer’s.”

Mark Ide, Ph.D., first author, from the Dental Institute at King’s College London, said: “A number of studies have shown that having few teeth, possibly as a consequence of earlier gum disease, is associated with a greater risk of developing dementia. We also believe, based on various research findings, that the presence of teeth with active gum disease results in higher body-wide levels of the sorts of inflammatory molecules which have also been associated with an elevated risk of other outcomes such as cognitive decline or cardiovascular disease. Research has suggested that effective gum treatment can reduce the levels of these molecules closer to that seen in a healthy state. Previous studies have also shown that patients with Alzheimer’s disease have poorer dental health than others of similar age and that the more severe the dementia the worse the dental health, most likely reflecting greater difficulties with taking care of oneself as dementia becomes more severe.”

Exercise and education.

Taking the stairs instead of the elevator not only can be good for your body; it also improves brain health, according to a study recently published in the journal Neurobiology of Aging.

Education is good for brain health as well, found researchers at Concordia University’s Montreal-based PERFORM Centre. Led by Jason Steffener, Ph.D., the investigators found that the more flights of stairs a person climbs, and the more years of schooling a person completes, the “younger” their brain physically appears.

The researchers found that brain age decreases by 0.95 years for each year of education and by 0.58 years for every daily flight of stairs climbed.

“There already exist many ‘take the stairs’ campaigns in office environments and public transportation centers,” Steffener said. “This study shows that these campaigns should also be expanded for older adults, so that they can work to keep their brains young.”

For the study, Steffener and his co-authors used magnetic resonance imaging to noninvasively examine the brains of 331 healthy adults who ranged in age from 19 to 79 years. They measured the volume of gray matter found in participants’ brains because its decline is a very visible part of the chronologic aging process. Then, they compared brain volume to the participants’ reported number of flights of stairs climbed and years of schooling completed.

Results were clear: the more flights of stairs climbed, and the more years of schooling completed, the younger the brain.

“This study shows that … people can actively do something to help their brains stay young,” Steffener said. “In comparison to many other forms of physical activity, taking the stairs is something most older adults can and already do at least once a day, unlike vigorous forms of physical activity.”

Another new study, conducted by investigators at UCLA Medical Center and the University of Pittsburgh, found that virtually any type of aerobic physical activity, from walking to gardening and dancing, can improve brain volume and cut the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by 50%. Funded by the National Institute of Aging, the research was published on March 11 in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

“Currently, the greatest promise in Alzheimer’s disease research is lifestyle intervention, including increased exercise,” said the journal’s editor-in-chief, George Perry, Ph.D.