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B Vitamins: are they good for the brain?

Feeling forgetful? Not as sharp as you used to be? A decline in cognitive function is a normal part of ageing; however what if we told you the degree of cognitive impairment can also be influenced by modifiable health behaviours including diet and nutrition.

Those trusty B vitamins have some new research backing their use for boosting cognitive ability in older adults (>65 years old age). Specifically, 12 weeks of daily supplementation with vitamin B6, vitamin B12 as well as vitamin B9 (folic acid) was associated with improved cognitive function, as well as an improvement in mood in individuals with mild cognitive impairment (MCI).

What is MCI?

MCI is a syndrome characterised by a subtle decline in cognitive function. The study hypothesised that increased concentrations of the amino acid homocysteine was linked to a higher rate of brain atrophy.

Although a modest rate of brain atrophy is observed with normal ageing, it is the increased levels of homocysteine (or hyperhomocysteinemia) which is a recognised modifiable risk factor when it comes to cognitive impairment.

The research suggested there may be a potential for B vitamins to impact homocysteine levels and consequently improve cognitive function in older adults.

So what is the relationship between B vitamins & homocysteine?

The complex metabolism of homocysteine and consequently its concentration within the body is dependent on vitamin B status. This is because folic acid, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12 are cofactors for the enzymes involved in the metabolism of homocysteine.

An insufficiency in one or more of these B vitamins can increase homocysteine concentrations in the body, and potentially our risk of cognitive impairment. Our requirements for B vitamins may increase during times of increased stress, as it is the B vitamins that work together to help support healthy functioning of the nervous system. 

It’s bigger than the B’s.

Other research has considered the role of omega-3 fatty acids, revealing the beneficial effect of B vitamins on brain atrophy only when individuals had high plasma levels of omega-3 fatty acids. This strengthens the importance of an individual’s pre-existing high plasma omega-3 levels plus B vitamins for healthy cognitive function.

Tips for staying sharp:

So what does this all mean? First of all, it’s not simply about the B’s, rather a holistic approach focused on optimising nutritional status with attention to omega-3 fatty acids found in foods such as fish; as well as the inclusion of wholegrains, fruits and vegetables. Other tips for staying sharp include:

  • Come on and move it, move it: physical activity such as daily walks may enhance cognition, as cardiovascular fitness increases blood flow and oxygen delivery to the brain.
  • Playing games is not just for children: good old fashioned games like chess and bridge, as well as working crossword puzzles has also been associated with maintained cognition in older adults.
  • Getting out and about: being social and actual engagement reflected by participation in community activities was protective of cognitive abilities.

For extra boost don’t forget considering vitamin Bs and/or fish oil supplementation. If you are concerned about your health, always consult a medical practitioner before commencing supplementation