My Q Health | Nutrition and Brain Function: Food for the Aging Mind
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Nutrition and Brain Function: Food for the Aging Mind

Nutrition and Brain Function: Food for the Aging Mind

Scientists know that certain nutrients and other key chemical compounds are essential to human brain function. Serious deficiencies in some of these, such as vitamin B12 and iron, can lead to impaired cognitive function due to neurological, or nerve fiber, complications.

Cognition can be defined as the ability to use simple-to-complex information to meet the challenges of daily living.

So, could careful attention to diet help protect the aging brain from problems with nerve cell signals involved in memory and cognition? A clear-cut answer could greatly affect the 77 million baby boomers who are now facing retirement. Their independence, quality of life, and even economic status will largely be defined by their ability to traffic information signals as they age.

In researching the nutrition-brain connection, new technologies are being used, such as those that take images of the brain or actually count individual brain cells. Behavioral tests that measure motor and cognitive skills—or lack thereof—are also providing insights. Yet the science of nutrition and brain function is relatively new and evolving.

Agricultural Research Service scientists at several locations nationwide are contributing to a growing body of research that explores the effect of diet and nutrition on the brain and its function across the lifespan.

Boosting Neuronal Function

The brain’s billions of neurons “talk” to one another through chemical neurotransmitters that convey signals through neural pathways. These chemical transporters—which include norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine—are key to signal movement.

Although people naturally lose brain cells throughout their lives, the process of neuronal death does not necessarily accelerate with aging. “There is a lot of individual difference,” says ARS neuroscientist James Joseph. “Loss of mental agility may be less due to loss of brain cells than to the cells’ failure to communicate effectively.”

Joseph heads the Neuroscience Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts University in Boston. There, researchers are looking at the beneficial effects of certain dietary plant compounds to learn how they affect brain function.

To read full article, visit United States Department of Agriculture.

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