Health Topics

Roger Newman Turner looks at ways of retaining our mental faculties as we get older.

‘How’s your father, these days?’ I asked one of my patients recently. I had known the gentleman in question many years ago. He had been the managing director of a well-established and successful company in the health sector, used to making decisions and using his judgement about projects on a day-to-day basis.

‘He’s not too good’ the son replied. ‘He barely recognises me or my sister and he still asks where our mother is’. She died five years ago.

Such tales of mental deterioration in old age are becoming increasingly common. As more people live into their eighties and nineties the incidence of senile decay appears to be on the increase.

The slowing down of our cognitive functions, especially short-term memory, first becomes evident to some people in their fifties and is normal enough. Elusive names and telephone numbers are an irritating inconvenience, but when we get to seventy or eighty and can’t remember whether we’ve had lunch or put on our trousers the right way, life becomes exceedingly difficult.

Of all the frailties of old age, probably the one we fear most, and the one that imposes the greatest burden on our relatives, is the loss of our mental faculties. Senile dementia and Alzheimer’s disease (not quite the same thing) destroy the dignity and the self-sufficiency of the most capable and finest intellects. Is there any way of predicting this decline and can we do anything to stop it?

While there is, as yet, little hope of reversing the condition - once nervous tissue is damaged it cannot readily regenerate - the prospect of prevention or, at least, slowing the rate of deterioration becomes greater as more is learned about the way we form memories and the biochemical changes that help in the process.

Obviously one of the major concerns for my patient is whether he must face the prospect of going the same way as his father in later years. While some genetic susceptibilities for mental decline have been determined, just as they have for heart disease and for asthma, they may not necessarily express themselves. In other words, as we learn more about ways to keep the body healthy, we will be able to prevent our cells sending the wrong messages to each other and triggering the destruction of the neurones in the brain which form and retain memory.

How we form our memories

The whole process of communication in our brain and nervous system is dependant on chemical and electrical signals which transmit the messages from one nerve to another. Each cell in the brain has a chemical attached to it called n-methyl-D-aspartate, known as NMDA, which receives the signals from its neighbours. NMDA is like a lock which must be opened with the right key and that key is a nutrient called glutathione. The arrival of the glutamate molecule from another cell coupled with an electrical charge within the receptor cell enables the NMDA to open the gate which allows calcium to flow into the cell and help to form the memory.

Clearly having the right components to sustain the line of communications is important and one way of influencing this may be with our diet.

Food and the mind

There are a number of ways, both positive and negative, in which nutrition has an influence on brain function:

  • Several nutrients are known to be vital components in the chain of communication between cells
  • Some foods are rich in antioxidants, which help to protect cells from damage and slow their deterioration
  • Some nutrients and herbs improve the circulation, ensuring better nourishment and removal of toxic waste products
  • Certain foods may have an adverse effect on the body’s toxic load or may interfere with the action of the beneficial antioxidants

The first essential for our food, therefore, is that it should have maximum nutritional value, while being low in the sort of things that increase cell damage. Food and drink, such as caffeine or alcohol in excess, will overburden the liver’s detoxification functions, as will artificial additives, over a period of time. They may lead to an excess of free-radical compounds, the chemical form of toxic substances, which attack cell membranes and lead to the formation of the plaques found in the brains of Alzheimer’s victims. These plaques obstruct the free flow of impulses along the neurones, rather like oil or rubbish will interfere with the movement of water in a stream.

Essential nutrients

While there is no evidence that specific nutrients, such as glutathione, can reverse neuronal damage, there is a strong probability that they may have a protective effect. The role of vitamins in promoting intelligence is a current controversy but there can be little doubt that some are vital for the maintenance of an active mind.

Researchers in Oxford have found that patients suffering from dementia have higher levels of homocysteine, an amino acid which increases oxidative stress. Homocysteine is associated with a greater susceptibility to heart attacks because it promotes the inflammatory activity which leads to the clogging of the arteries. A similar process may occur in the brain. Folic acid, one of the B vitamins, helps to contain the homocysteine within healthy limits. Vitamins C and E have multiple benefits. Both are important antioxidants reducing susceptibility to inflammation and helping in removal of toxic products of metabolism. Vitamin E also helps to improve the circulation and maintain the elasticity of blood vessels.

The finding that aluminium levels are higher in the brains of sufferers from AD suggests that aluminium toxicity may contribute to the disorder. It is worth avoiding the use of aluminium utensils for cooking. Vitamin C inhibits the absorption of aluminium.

Getting the right fats

Fats are important for both the development and maintenance of healthy brain function, but they must be the right sort. There are a large number of essential fatty acids (EFAs).

The more fluid fats, polyunsaturated or mono-unsaturated, are the ones we need to carry nutrients, such as Vitamin E, around the body, protect nerve sheaths, and help form hormones. The most important of these are known as the omega 3, omega 6, and omega 9 fatty acids found in the foods listed in the table below.

Researchers in Italy who were studying the link between nutrition and cognitive function in 300 elderly people found that many of them had a high consumption of mono-unsaturated fats, mainly from olive oil, and these subjects scored significantly higher in tests of concentration and mental ability.

While clinical studies have found that higher intake of some polyunsaturated fats (such as omega 6 in sunflower oil) is linked with mental decline, there is evidence of beneficial effects on cognitive functions from fish oil or flax seed oil (which provide omega 3) and olive oil (omega 9). It is believed that olive oil improves the structure of the nerves as well as protecting against free-radical damage.

Best Food Sources of Essential Fatty Acids

Omega 3
Omega 6
Omega 9
Oily fish Sunflower seeds Olive oil
Flax seeds Tofu  
Borage oil Walnuts  
Pumpkin seeds Pumpkin seeds  
  Soya milk  

Checking our deficiencies and efficiencies

Finding the right supplements can be a bit of a lottery and certainly more expensive. While it may be safe to take basic supplements such as vitamins B, C, and E it is worth finding out what your real needs are for other nutrients. It is now possible to test your levels of essential minerals and trace elements as well as toxic metals, such as mercury and aluminium, by non-invasive methods using saliva, sweat, and hair.

Essential fatty acids can be measured most accurately in the red blood cells, requiring a small blood sample. The efficiency of liver detoxification and the leakiness of the intestinal lining can be measured using saliva and urine samples.

You would need to consult a naturopathic physician to get these tests done and for guidance in the interpretation of the results. Individual nutritional needs and dietary advice are best determined on the basis of sound clinical judgement.


Physical: do what you enjoy doing and aim for twenty minutes at least three times a week. Brisk walking, swimming, cycling, and running will improve oxygenation of the brain. Yoga, t’ai chi and qi gong are gentler ways of maintaining flexibility and help to reduce levels of stress.

Mental: engage the mind with regular mental stimuli by reading, creative writing, chess, or crossword puzzles. Sex and the memory

Almost any physical exercise is helpful and that includes sex. In the USA, a study of elderly people found that those who took regular physical exercise performed mental tasks more efficiently and had sharper reflexes. Benefits of physical exercise to maintain a good blood supply to the brain are obvious, but our hormones play a part too. Researchers at Yale University and the University of Texas Medical School used magnetic resonance imaging to gauge the changes in blood flow and oxygen to the brain and found that they were significantly better in women who were taking oestrogen replacement.

The same appears to be true for men and testosterone, the male hormone, which may protect against age-related dementia. In a recent study which measured the sex hormones of 500 men aged 55 to 89 it was found that moderately high levels of testosterone were associated with better long-term memory.

Adequate levels of the sex hormones in both men and women equate with better sexual activity and there may be a correlation between this and mental acuity as we age. A further study found that elderly men who had regular orgasms were more alert mentally. Certainly regular sexual activity maintains better levels of sex hormones in males and females, though whether they have a direct effect on memory or whether mentally alert people just happen to be more sexually active is open to conjecture.

A Mind Maintenance Programme

It turns out that a lot of the things we know to be good for the body are also essential for the brain: healthy nutrition, exercise, both physical and mental, adequate rest, and even an active sex life.

Diet: Wholefood organically grown where possible. Include: green leafy vegetables, fresh fruit, wholegrains daily and soya products, pumpkin seeds, flax seeds, Brazil nuts, oily fish, extra virgin olive oil (in cooking and dressings) several times a week.

Avoid: caffeine, alcohol in excess, sugar, artificial additives, (but treats on special occasions are permissible and lift the spirits!)

Supplements. If there is a history of dementia, heart disease, or diabetes in your family it is worth taking additional supplements in conjunction with a balanced diet. The following are worth taking for three month courses:

Vitamin B complex - strong formulation, 1 tablet daily
Vitamin C - as bioflavonoid complex, 500mg, 1 tablet twice daily
Vitamin E* 100iu - 2 capsules twice daily
Gingko complex* - 1 tablet three times daily
*If you have high blood pressure or are on drugs to thin blood seek the advice of your doctor or a naturopath before using these products.

Exercise. Anything you enjoy doing which makes you increase the heart rate and pant. Walking, gardening, swimming, and sports are all beneficial. And don’t forget to exercise the brain!

R. Newman Turner, ND, DO, BAc

Based on an article which first appeared in InBalance Magazine, issue 33, Summer 2000