Diet is a powerful force as we say time and again. Most of the studies revolve around the physical aspects: inflammation, disease risk, body composition, blood markers, etc. But there’s the promise a good diet can offer other elements of health, including cognitive performance. With climbing rates of dementia and Alzheimer’s, these correlations are nothing to shake a stick at.
In that vein, this recent study caught our eye. Researchers from the University of Muenster in Germany followed subjects who had been grouped into three practices: a caloric restriction group (30% cut in daily intake), a group that increased their consumption of essential fatty acids (20% increase), and a control group. After three months, all subjects retook tests focused on memory activities. The group that cut its calories showed a “significant increase” in scores related to verbal memory. The apparent cognitive improvement could be correlated, the researchers say, with “decreases in fasting plasma levels of insulin and high sensitive C-reactive protein.” No noteworthy changes were seen in the other subjects.
Are we coming out in favor of caloric restriction, you might ask. Not really. While study results like this do present intriguing food for thought, we’re more interested in the investigative “why” behind the observed benefits than the straight practice of CR itself. (On a related note, we do recommend intermittent fasting, but we’ll leave that comparison for another time.) In this case, our interest was definitely piqued by the authors’ comment on the power of CR to boost memory function: “Mechanisms underlying this improvement might include higher synaptic plasticity and stimulation of neurofacilitatory pathways in the brain because of improved insulin sensitivity and reduced inflammatory activity.”
Hmmm. An eating practice that enhances insulin sensitivity and reduces systemic inflammation. Why does that sound familiar? Anyone around here know anything about that? Let’s say right away, that this point does make a significant conjecture. The study results address observed benefits of CR as it was undertaken in this study by this (relatively) small group of older people. But it’s entirely legitimate to ask that “why” question and see what else it might tell us about the relationship between cognitive performance and eating habits that tend to lower insulin release and reduce inflammation.
In fact, another study published this week in Diabetes Care links higher average blood glucose levels with reduced performance on a number of cognitive activities, including those measuring memory. (Those with diabetes suffer higher rates of dementia and cognitive decline, and the development of diabetes in middle age has been shown to actually double the risk of Alzheimer’s disease in twins.) The research, which is part of the ongoing ACCORD study, stops short of defining causation until further results are gathered and analyzed. Nonetheless, the connection is more than mere suggestion in light of other research.
Is it really any surprise that what’s good for the body appears to also be healthy for the mind? The take-home message is this: keeping systemic inflammation and insulin levels in check will definitely benefit your body and reduce your chance of developing many major diseases, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes and hypertension. But beyond putting years on your life and life in your years, a healthy diet may also help you remember and fully enjoy the best of all your years.