Cognitive decline is an unfortunate reality that many must face with aging. It is important to distinguish that there is a difference in severity between age-associated memory impairment, mild cognitive impairment and dementia. The latter becomes a diagnosis when there is an interference in activities of daily living. The most common cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, which accounts for about 60-80% of all dementia cases (1). Approximately, one third of the population will have Alzheimer’s disease when they are 85 years of age or older (1). Other than the most common symptom of impaired short-term memory, other symptoms include dysfunction in language and visuospatial awareness, impaired reasoning, poor judgement and possible behavioural disorders (1). This is definitely a very relevant concern especially in the aging population. Although the prognosis of the disease is about 7 years of survival from the time of diagnosis, the bigger concern is more so about the disability that has a large impact not only on the individual but on the surrounding family and friends and other support systems, and the community at large (1).
Unfortunately, there isn’t much to be done from a treatment perspective other than some medications which may slow down the progression of the disease and then taking on the appropriate safety measures and offering necessary support (1). This is why prevention becomes paramount in the realm of supporting cognition and brain health through the aging process. Not only do we want to aim to prevent the onset of disease but also to prevent the rate of its progression if onset were to occur. Like so many other conditions, it comes down to a balanced and healthy lifestyle and addressing possible underlying health foundations that could be at play. You want to make sure your vitamin B12 status is in good standing and rule out other possible nutritional deficiencies as well as rule out any thyroid or liver conditions that may mimic symptoms of dementia. Once these have been addressed, there is also many more nutrients you can leverage to support and optimize your brain health, especially if you are more susceptible to cognitive decline whether from a genetic predisposition or other risk factors.
You may know saffron, or Crocus sativus, as a spice often used in food. In the world of traditional medicine, saffron is primarily used as an effective and natural antidepressant due to its action on serotonin metabolism (2). As is the case for most, if not all, botanicals, herbs often confer multiple simultaneous actions in the body. As much as saffron has been primarily used for mood regulation, it has shown some promise in the realm of Alzheimer’s disease, less so for prevention of onset and more so in preventing the rate of progression of the disease. In one short-term trial lasting 16 weeks, supplementing with 30mg of saffron daily in those over 65 years of age with a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s showed an improvement in symptoms (3). This improvement was assessed by validated scales and compared to the placebo group that saw a progression in their disease state (3). This might be a natural treatment worth exploring, especially if there is a visible change in mood associated with the condition.
Vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin and powerful antioxidant that we can get quite easily from our diets from foods such as avocados, olives and almonds (4). Supplementing with vitamin E is often unnecessary but can have such a wide array of health benefits, especially in the aging population. When it comes to Alzheimer’s disease, the effect in decreasing symptoms is quite notable in the research. Supplementing with 2000 IUs of alpha-tocopherols specifically, has shown a slower cognitive decline in those with moderate severity of the disease (5). Vitamin E supplementation has also been shown to decrease the rate of decline in activities of daily living by almost 20% in those with a mild-to-moderate severity (6) (7). This was accompanied by a half-year delay in disease progression which can be substantial for the individual themselves and their support system of family and friends (6) (7).
Choline is known to be a brain boosting nutrient found in high concentration in egg yolks (8). Theoretically, this nutrient helps learning and cognition when it turns into acetylcholine and is used as a neurotransmitter in the brain however, that evidence is lacking (8). Alpha-GPC is a choline-containing supplement that has shown promise for promoting cognitive properties in healthy individuals and preventing cognitive decline in more susceptible populations (9). Supplementation of 400mg of alpha-GPC 3 times per day for about 6 months improved symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease on various validated scales in those with mild-to-moderate severity (10). Additionally, it appears that the rate of cognitive decline is significantly reduced with supplementation of this nutrient, despite the cause of it (10).
Fish oil supplementation usually focuses on an EPA:DHA ratio in favour of the former to confer the anti-inflammatory benefits. In the case of cognitive decline, DHA levels become more important and a fish oil with a higher DHA:EPA ratio is the preference. In research, it appears that even a high-DHA fish oil has not shown significant benefits for those already diagnosed with even mild-to-moderate severity of Alzheimer’s disease (11). However, 900mg of DHA supplement in adults 55 years of age and older showing signs of cognitive decline did see some improvement particularly in improving learning and memory functions (12). This was mostly in those with age-related cognitive decline rather than the more severe disease state of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Obtaining these beneficial nutrients from food sources and supplementation can help to prevent the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s disease. To further support your cognition through healthy aging, make sure to have a well-rounded, balanced and healthy lifestyle that also incorporates daily movement, mental activity, and lots of anti-inflammatory foods.