Posted on Apr 27, 2023, 3 p.m.
Researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have been investigating the links between measures known to independently predict healthy aging, and their study described in the Journal of Nutrition adds to the growing body of evidence suggesting that these factors jointly contribute to brain health in older adults.
The team of researchers reports exploring the links between nutrient intake, brain structure, and cognitive function with healthy aging, finding that blood markers of certain saturated fatty acids along with certain omega-6,-7, and -9 fatty acids are correlated with better test scoring of memory as well as larger brain structures in the frontal, temporal, parietal and insular cortices areas.
Other studies suggest one-to-one associations between individual nutrients, classes of nutrients, and specific brain regions and functions but little work involves a comprehensive look at brain health and cognition along with broad dietary patterns, according to Aron Barbey, who is a professor of psychology, bioengineering and neuroscience at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who led the study with postdoctoral researcher Tanveer Talukdar and psychology research scientist Chris Zwilling. The three co-authors all are affiliated with the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the U. of I.
"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," Barbey said. "This allows us to better understand how nutrition contributes to health, aging and disease,"
This study involved data from 111 healthy adults which included MRI scans, blood-based biomarkers of 62 dietary nutrients, and cognitive performance testing of memory as well as intelligence. These measures were combined using tailored data fusion approaches which revealed associations between dozens of features that appeared to work in tandem to promote cognitive and brain health in older adults.
To overcome some of the limitations of analyzing individual factors the researchers used data fusion to look across multiple data sets to map traits/features with common patterns of variability, according to Talukdar who was noted to have tailored the method to incorporate the data on cognition, brain volumetrics and nutrition.
"We're looking at relationships among all of these together," he said. "This allows us to identify certain features that cluster together,” said Talukdar.
"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."
Performance on testing of auditory memory and both long and short-term memory, as well as blood markers related to the consumption of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids cluster together and involve the size of gray matter volumes in the frontal, temporal and parietal cortices. According to the analysis, participants scoring higher on memory testing tended to have larger gray matter volumes along with higher marker levels of omega-6, -7, and -9 in their blood. While those who did not do as well on cognitive testing had smaller gray matter volumes and lower levels of dietary markers.
While the study does add evidence that nutrition is an important factor in healthy aging, this study only reveals associations between these factors and does not prove that lifestyle dietary habits can directly promote brain health.
"Our work motivates a more comprehensive picture of healthy aging," Zwilling said. "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."
It was noted that this work was supported by a grant from Abbott Nutrition through the Center for Nutrition, Learning, and Memory at the U. of I.
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