Fish oil, ginkgo tea, dark chocolate, and periwinkle extract have all been touted as brain enhancers, along with countless infomercial pills. But do any of them preserve memory as we age? Says one Yale neurologist‒well, forget about it.
“Dietary supplements have pretty much failed,” says Jaime Grutzendler, M.D., associate professor of neurology and neurobiology and director of the Center for Experimental Neuroimaging. “Vitamin B12, vitamin E, vitamin C‒all the studies that have been done so far have not shown any long-term benefits.”
For Grutzendler, Alzheimer disease and other brain conditions are the ultimate challenge. His lab studies different pathologies in the brain using real-time cellular imaging; like early astronomers gathering information by watching the night sky, he enters research with no agenda. He just wants to find out how things work. “We don’t have a preconceived notion of what the system should do or how it should deteriorate,” he says. With these methods, Grutzendler’s work has shed light on theories about how we fall into cognitive decline.
The causes of cognitive decline are nearly as varied as the supplements sold to prevent it. In his office, where Pollock-like images of fluorescent brain cells decorate the walls, Grutzendler points to a series of images on his computer screen. They depict structures in the brain associated with dementia, primarily the plaques famously found in Alzheimer patients and the lesser-known but no less common neurofibrillary tangles. These tangles are built-up proteins inside neurons, as opposed to plaques, which form outside the cells and can cover large portions of the brain. They both interfere with cellular signaling.
Aging itself is associated with plaques and tangles, which lead to some degree of cognitive slowing and potential memory loss. But they don’t always appear in the same places or at the same times. “Aging is complicated,” says Grutzendler. “Aging is not one disease. It’s the disease of almost everything, like an old car‒basically, everything starts to fall apart in some way.” Neurologists look at different types of damage in the brain that may lead to the same symptoms, just as a dead battery or a faulty ignition switch both mean a car won’t start.
So, are all humans doomed to some form of cognitive decline if we live long enough? Grutzendler speculates yes‒but not all hope is lost. Supplements haven’t worked conclusively in preventing or slowing dementia, but vascular health‒making sure your circulatory system gets blood to body parts that need it‒is important at any stage of life. And factors affecting vascular health aren’t so difficult to pin down.
Uncontrolled diabetes, obesity, hypertension, and smoking are all associated with damage to small blood vessels in the brain. When these vessels are affected, less blood makes it to the neurons, weakening their connections. Scientists haven’t yet demonstrated a bulletproof connection to cognitive decline, but Grutzendler concludes that these are serious risk factors.
Sleep is another factor believed to affect cognitive health, though those links have not been fully demonstrated. The best science, however, still tells us that sleep, exercise, good nutrition, and control of such risk factors as smoking and high blood pressure are some of the keys to a healthy lifestyle‒and a healthy brain.