New research has examined the links between nutrients, brain structure and cognition to further the understanding of the role nutrition plays in health and aging.

It is known that these three measures can independently forecast healthy aging, with this latest study adding to evidence of how these factors combine to contribute to brain health in older age.

Researchers found that blood markers of two saturated fatty acids and certain omega 6, 7 and 9 fatty acids were linked to better scores on memory tests. They also found links between the fatty acids and larger brain structures in the frontal, temporal, parietal and insular cortices.

Study lead Aron Barbey, a professor of psychology, bioengineering and neuroscience at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said: “Our findings reveal that we can use nutrient biomarkers, cognitive tests and MRI measures of brain structure to account for much of the variation in healthy aging. This allows us to better understand how nutrition contributes to health, aging and disease.”

There has been little research which looks comprehensively at brain health, cognition and nutrition overall, so this latest study set out to further the understanding in this area.

The team looked at data from 111 healthy adults with MRI scans, biomarkers of 52 nutrients, and the results of memory and intelligence tests. They combined the measures and found links between elements that seem to work together to support brain and cognitive health.

The analysis meant researchers were able to identify certain features that cluster together, with Professor Barbey saying: “If we just look at nutrition as it relates to brain structures and we don’t study cognition, or if we look at nutrition as it relates to cognition and we don’t study the brain, then we’re actually missing really important pieces of information.”

The obvious clusters that were identified were:

  • The size of grey-matter volumes in the frontal, temporal and parietal cortices;
  • Performance on auditory memory and short and long-term memory tests;
  • Blood markers relating to the consumption of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids.

Participants who performed better on the memory tests were more likely to have larger grey-matter volumes and greater higher levels of markers of omega 6, 7 and 9 fatty acids in their blood.

Those who did not perform so well on the cognitive tests tended to have smaller grey-matter volumes in those regions of the brain and lower levels of those specific dietary markers.

The research does not conclusively prove that diet directly promotes brain health, but it does add to growing evidence that what you eat plays a significant role in healthy aging.

Psychology research scientist Chris Zwilling Zwilling, who was involved in the study, said: “Our work motivates a more comprehensive picture of healthy aging. This gives insight into the importance of diet and nutrition and the value of data-fusion methods for studying their contributions to adult development and the neuroscience of aging.”

Read the full study in The Journal of Nutrition.

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