New research conducted at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine suggests that older adults with a higher intake of certain nutrients in a diet may have lower brain iron concentration and better cognition.
This study highlights the important balance of non-heme iron for optimal brain function. Previous research has found that excess levels of non-heme iron in the brain is associated with neurological diseases, such as multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease. In normal aging, high levels of brain iron have also been recorded and correlated with poor cognitive performance.
Non-heme iron is found in plant-based foods, grains, beans, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds. It can also be found in some animal products such as eggs or milk/dairy, and it comprises more than half the iron contained in animal meat.
The study was recently published in the Neurobiology of Aging and questioned whether age-related increases in brain iron and cognitive decline could be reduced by environmental factors such as a healthy dietary intake. To understand this relationship, the research team analyzed diet, brain iron, and cognitive performance in a group of healthy older adults between 61 and 86 years old.
The study used a variety of methods to examine participants. These included questionnaires to gather nutritional information, computer assessments to gain knowledge about working memory performance, and an in vivo MRI technique called quantitative susceptibility mapping to measure iron concentration in brain tissue.
The results showed consistency with other studies indicating that increasing age was associated with higher levels of brain iron concentration and a reduction in working memory performance.
However, researchers also found that the participants with high dietary intake of nutrients such as vitamin E, lysine, DHA omega-3, and LA omega-6 PUFA tended to have lower brain iron and better working memory performance than expected for people of their age. These nutrients are commonly found in foods such as nuts, soybeans, olive oils, and fish.
Researchers concluded the study by saying that the results suggest that these nutrients may offer protection against brain iron accumulation and cognitive decline in older adults. By changing some simple lifestyle behaviors such as diet, cognition can be positively affected.
“Our promising correlational findings provide motivation for follow-up clinical trials to assess whether specific nutrition can slow brain iron accumulation in older adults,” added Brian Gold, Ph.D., principal investigator of the study.