Study after study has provided evidence of the importance of vitamins in ensuring mental acuity, especially in older adults who may be affected by physiological changes that impair the body’s ability to metabolize these nutrients. A deficiency of certain key vitamins has been linked to cognitive decline in older people, but the good news is that restoring normal levels of these nutrients can often prevent or slow mental decline.
Does that mean that seniors should be taking vitamin supplements? Yes and no, says David Mischoulon, MD, PhD, Director of Research at the Depression Clinical and Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH).
“Ideally we should get the nutrients we need from eating a balanced diet,” he explains. “That includes vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole-grain cereals, legumes, fish, modest amounts of low-fat dairy products, and lean meats. Dietary guidelines also suggest healthy fats such as olive oil.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
If you’re worried you may be missing out on key brain vitamins and you’re thinking of taking a supplement, Dr. Mischoulon suggests that you:
Assess your diet. If you’re not sure whether you’re getting enough of the right foods, talk with your doctor or keep a food journal. A diet screening quiz is available at http://abt.cm/2l0RGPP.
Select a reputable commercial brand. A “USP” on the label indicates the supplement meets the standards of a well-known testing organization. Go to http://consumerlab.com to verify quality online.
Avoid “megadose” supplements.
Check expiration dates, since supplements can lose potency over time. Don’t buy products with no expiration dates on the label.
Avoid products that are unusually expensive or make outlandish claims.
Follow the dosage instructions on the label, or check with your doctor. You should use supplements intelligently, following recommended daily allowances and avoiding megadoses.
“But since most people don’t eat a balanced diet, taking supplements can be a sensible idea,” Dr. Mischoulon continues.
Does that include a multivitamin? Not necessarily: “A multiple vitamin is not ideal because it’s a one-size-fits-all solution that might not suit your individual needs,” Dr. Mischoulon says. “Better to assess your diet, figure out what you’re not getting enough of and then take those specific vitamins.”
The following vitamins play an especially important role in the brain and nervous system:
Vitamin A: This powerful antioxidant protects brain cells from the damaging effects of free radicals (unstable molecules that disrupt the activities of cells) and is essential for a healthy immune system. Recommended daily allowance (RDA) is 700 micrograms for women, 900 micrograms for men. Food sources: Liver, carrots, dark colored fruits and leafy green vegetables.
B Vitamins: All B vitamins are important for brain health, but some are thought to be more critical than others.
- Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) is required for the production of the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine and adrenaline. Research suggests that, in addition to cognitive decline, a deficiency in B6 can cause depression, irritability, and sensitivity to sound. RDA is 1.3 to1.5 mg for women, and 1.3 to 1.7 mg for men. Food sources: Fortified cereals, beef liver and other organ meats, potatoes and other starchy vegetables, and non-citrus fruits.
- Vitamin B9 (folic acid or folate) is essential for the metabolism of fatty acids in the brain and for the production of an important cell chemical called SAMe. Deficiency can cause nerve problems, memory disorders, and convulsions. RDA is 400 mg for men and women. Food sources: Enriched cereals, dark leafy greens, enriched and whole-grain bread products and fortified cereals.
- Vitamin B12 is involved in the synthesis of the neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine. Deficiency causes confusion, irritability, memory and movement problems, and degeneration of white matter in the brain. Because it is poorly absorbed in the elderly, an estimated 15 percent of seniors are thought to be deficient in the vitamin. RDA is 2.4 mg in women and men, but doctors may recommend greater intake, and perhaps supplementation, in deficient individuals. Food sources: Meat, fish, poultry and fortified cereals.
Vitamin C: This powerful antioxidant helps protect brain cells from damage and improves resistance to age-related neurological disorders. Research published in the February 2017 issue of Annals of Pharmacotherapy involving 11 years of data on more than 5,000 older adults suggests that participants who took vitamin C supplements reduced their risk of dementia by 42 percent. In addition to possible cognitive effects, a deficiency in this vitamin can cause lassitude and mood instability. RDA is 75 mg for women and 90 mg for men. Food sources: Citrus fruit, blueberries, tomatoes, potatoes, Brussels sprouts, strawberries, spinach, and cantaloupe.
Vitamin D: New research suggests that low levels of this important “sunshine” vitamin are linked to cognitive decline. In research involving 1,202 older adults published in the October 2016 issue of The Journals of Gerontology, Series A, scientists found that participants deficient in vitamin D were two to three times as likely to develop cognitive impairment as those with normal levels. Vitamin D is necessary for the absorption of calcium and phosphorus in the brain. Deficiency can be associated with depression. A principal source of vitamin D is exposure to sunlight. RDA is 15 micrograms (600 International Units) for adults ages 51-70 and 20 micrograms (800 International Units) for adults 71 and older. Food sources: Fish liver oils, fatty fish, beef or calf liver, eggs, fortified milk products and fortified cereals.
Vitamin E: This important antioxidant, too, has been associated with the prevention of brain-cell damage and reduced risk for cognitive decline. In the Annals of Pharmacotherapy study, researchers found that participants who supplemented with vitamin E experienced a 40 percent reduction in risk for Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. The vitamin appears to boost resistance to vascular dementia by limiting damage to brain tissue after stroke. Deficiency of vitamin E may also affect the nerve supply to the muscles, causing problems in walking and balance. RDA is 15 mg for women and men. Food sources: Vegetable oils, unprocessed cereal grains, nuts, fruits, vegetables and meats.