People with ‘superior’ intelligence, memory have high levels of these nutrients

Research shows how the foods we eat can lead to better brain structure, function, and cognition in older adults

LINCOLN, Neb. — As we age, it’s not uncommon to experience some degree of cognitive decline – a frustrating reality for many older adults. But what if there were a way to slow down or even prevent this age-related brain deterioration? Exciting new research from the emerging field of Nutritional Cognitive Neuroscience suggests that the answer may lie in the foods we eat.

The study, published in Nature Aging, identifies a specific set of nutrients that appear to promote “healthy brain aging.” By studying the diets, cognitive abilities, and brain scans of 100 older adults, the researchers discovered that those with higher levels of certain key nutrients in their blood exhibited larger brain volumes, better white matter integrity, more efficient brain network organization, and superior performance on tests of intelligence and memory.

So, what exactly are these brain-boosting nutrients? The nutrient profile linked to healthier brain aging included higher levels of specific monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, fat-soluble vitamins and vitamin-like compounds (vitamin E and choline), and antioxidants called carotenoids (lutein and zeaxanthin). While these nutrients have previously been associated with brain health, this study is one of the first to examine their collective impact using multiple sophisticated brain imaging techniques, providing a more comprehensive picture. Interestingly, the team found that this nutrient profile lined up strongly with the foods in the Mediterranean diet.

“We investigated specific nutrient biomarkers, such as fatty acid profiles, known in nutritional science to potentially offer health benefits. This aligns with the extensive body of research in the field demonstrating the positive health effects of the Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes foods rich in these beneficial nutrients,” says Aron Barbey, director of the Center for Brain, Biology, and Behavior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, in a media release. “The present study identifies particular nutrient biomarker patterns that are promising and have favorable associations with measures of cognitive performance and brain health.”

To understand why this nutrient combination is so powerful, let’s break down the roles of these nutrients in the brain. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, like those found in fish, nuts, and vegetable oils, are crucial for maintaining the structural integrity of brain cells and facilitating communication between neurons. They also help combat inflammation, which has been linked to age-related cognitive impairment and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Vitamin E, abundant in nuts, seeds, and leafy greens, is a potent antioxidant that protects brain cells from oxidative stress – a kind of cellular wear-and-tear that accumulates with age. Choline, found in eggs, meat, and cruciferous vegetables, is essential for producing acetylcholine (a neurotransmitter critical for memory) and maintaining the structural integrity of brain cell membranes.

Lutein and zeaxanthin, the carotenoids highlighted in the study, are primarily found in leafy green vegetables like spinach and kale. These compounds accumulate in the brain and act as potent antioxidants, shielding brain cells from damaging free radicals. Previous research has linked higher lutein and zeaxanthin levels to better memory, processing speed, and executive function in older adults.

Foods rich in Omega 3 fatty acids; Healthy Mediterranean diet foods
The team found that this nutrient profile lined up strongly with the foods in the Mediterranean diet. (© samael334 –

Interestingly, the researchers found that study participants naturally clustered into two distinct groups based on their brain health: those displaying age-appropriate brain changes (the “Delayed Aging” group) and those showing more pronounced brain deterioration (the “Accelerated Aging” group). Remarkably, the Delayed Aging group not only had higher blood levels of the key nutrients but also outperformed their Accelerated Aging counterparts on tests of intelligence, memory, and executive function.

What’s more, the researchers calculated each participant’s “brain age” using machine learning algorithms trained on their brain scans. Incredibly, those in the Delayed Aging group had brains that appeared younger than their chronological age would suggest. This finding underscores the potential for nutrition to not just maintain but potentially even reverse some aspects of brain aging.

The study’s lead authors emphasize that their nutrient profile is not meant to be a definitive prescription but rather a starting point for developing targeted “brain-healthy” diets. They stress the importance of obtaining these nutrients from whole foods rather than supplements, as the complex interactions between nutrients in their natural form may be key to their beneficial effects.

While this study represents an exciting leap forward in our understanding of nutrition’s role in brain health, the authors acknowledge some limitations. The study’s cross-sectional design means that causality cannot be definitively established – that is, we can’t say for certain that the nutrient profile directly caused the brain and cognitive differences observed. Additionally, the study sample was relatively small and homogeneous (predominantly white and well-educated), so further research is needed to determine if these findings apply to more diverse populations.

Nonetheless, this study provides compelling evidence that nutrition is a critical factor in shaping the trajectory of brain aging. By adopting dietary patterns rich in these neuroprotective nutrients, older adults may be able to preserve their cognitive faculties well into their golden years. Future research, including randomized controlled trials, will help refine our understanding of the optimal “neuro-nutrition” for healthy brain aging.

In the meantime, there’s no harm in adding more fatty fish, leafy greens, nuts, and eggs to our plates. Not only might we be nourishing a healthier brain, but these nutrient-dense foods confer a host of other health benefits, from heart health to longevity. As the old adage goes, “You are what you eat” – and when it comes to the aging brain, that may be especially true. By making smart dietary choices, we may be able to keep our minds sharp, our memories vivid, and our cognitive powers humming along for years to come.

StudyFinds Editor-in-Chief Steve Fink contributed to this report.