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Breakfast Beats Back Forgetfulness

Morning meal fuels improved memory in older folks

WEDNESDAY, Jan. 30, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Older people who don't remember to eat breakfast may be setting themselves up for a day of forgetfulness.

That's the conclusion of recent research on 22 men and women between the ages of 61 and 79 that showed that eating breakfast -- whether it's carbohydrates, protein or even just fat -- improved short-term memory.

Over the course of four days, those being tested at the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care in Toronto were given nutrient beverages of pure carbohydrate, pure protein, pure fat or a placebo with no energy.

They were then given a "paragraph recall" test, in which they were told a story and then asked to recall details at 15 minutes and then an hour after hearing the story.

After the first 15 minutes, those who had ingested the nutrient beverages had significantly improved memory, compared to those who took the placebo, who had no memory improvements.

The results, which were published in a recent issue of American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, are significant in light of earlier studies, says the study's author, Randall Kaplan, a researcher at the University of Toronto and Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care.

Kaplan says previous studies have linked carbohydrates -- and specifically, glucose, or sugar, intake -- with memory benefits, but improvements have not been seen with other nutrients.

"The thinking has been that any type of carbohydrate could increase blood sugar, that that increases glucose supply to the brain and that's what could improve memory," says Kaplan.

Although the results on the hour-later test were strongest for those who had taken the carbohydrate beverage, all those tested showed improvements after 15 minutes, even without the inclusion of carbohydrates.

"We found that protein, fat and carbohydrate all improve memory, even though protein and fat do not increase blood sugar levels," Kaplan explains.

"So that was the surprising finding -- that any energy source seemed to be able to improve memory initially and that blood sugar does not have to increase for memory to be enhanced," he says.

Kaplan says the improvements could be the result of any number of brain processes sparked by the nutrients, including changes in insulin and serotonin levels.

On the longer-lasting effects of carbohydrates, he speculates that the elevation of blood glucose levels may prompt a synthesis of certain brain transmitters, causing sustained memory benefits.

Nutritionist Tammy Baker, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, says studies have shown the benefits of breakfast extend back to youth, with children scoring higher on tests, having more energy and even having lower tardiness and absenteeism when regularly eating the meal.

She adds, however, that the elderly may see the most improvements from breakfast because, unlike younger people, their bodies have lower compensatory resources for meals that are missed.

"As we age, our bodies are not able to compensate as well for missed meals," she says.

Baker says the longer-lasting benefits of the carbohydrates seen in the study are testimony to the way glucose is known to offer a brain boost.

"Any fuel is better than no fuel, but for the immediate kick to start the brain, carbohydrates are really the preferred fuel," she says.

So how does that translate into real food?

An ideal breakfast, says Baker, would include a bowl of healthy cereal with milk and perhaps some fruit.

Other nutritious high-carb breakfasts would include a bagel or French toast, also with fruit.

In terms of preserving memory over the long-term, experts say important factors include exercising regularly in order to improve blood flow circulation, maintaining a healthy body weight, and eating a diet that's low in saturated fat and high in fiber, fruits and vegetables.

Research has also shown that vitamins A, C and especially E can help in various ways to boost the brain cells involved in memory.

What To Do

If the notion of eating right and exercising to keep yourself alert and healthy seems a little daunting, here's helpful information from the American Dietetic Association on Motivation Boosters For Healthy Living.

And visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's site on Healthy Aging for Older Adults for more information.

SOURCES: Interviews with Randall Kaplan, Ph.D., study author, and researcher, University of Toronto and Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care; Tammy Baker, M.S.R.D., nutritionist, and spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association; October 2001 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
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