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Nutrition Linked to Brain Health, Intelligence in Older Adults

December 13, 2016

According to a study published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, the consumption of a pigment found in leafy greens has been linked to the preservation of “crystallized intelligence” or the ability to use the skills and knowledge one has accumulated over one’s lifetime.

The pigment, lutein, is one of several plant pigments that people acquire by eating leafy green vegetables, cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, or egg yolks, according to Marta Zamroziewicz, a University of Illinois graduate student who led the study with psychology professor Aron Barbey, PhD. Lutein accumulates in the brain, embedding in cell membranes, where it likely plays “a neuroprotective role,” she said.
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The study enrolled 122 healthy participants aged 65 to 75 who solved problems and answered questions on a standard test of crystallized intelligence. Researchers also collected blood samples to determine blood serum levels of lutein and imaged participants' brains using MRI to measure the volume of different brain structures. The team focused on parts of the temporal cortex, a brain region that other studies suggest plays a role in the preservation of crystallized intelligence.

The researchers found that participants with higher blood serum levels of lutein tended to do better on tests of crystallized intelligence. Serum lutein levels reflect only recent dietary intakes, Ms Zamroziewicz said, but are associated with brain concentrations of lutein in older adults, which reflect long-term dietary intake.

“Our analyses revealed that gray-matter volume of the parahippocampal cortex on the right side of the brain accounts for the relationship between lutein and crystallized intelligence,” Dr Barbey said. “This offers the first clue as to which brain regions specifically play a role in the preservation of crystallized intelligence, and how factors such as diet may contribute to that relationship.”

However, he continued: “We can only hypothesize at this point how lutein in the diet affects brain structure….It may be that it plays an anti-inflammatory role or aids in cell-to-cell signaling. But our finding adds to the evidence suggesting that particular nutrients slow age-related declines in cognition by influencing specific features of brain aging.”­—Amanda Del Signore


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