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The Ageing Brain

Wednesday July 22, 2020
The Ageing Brain

For more information, including advice on modifying your lifestyle, visit your local independent health store. To find your nearest one, visit:  What happens to the brain when we age?  Can what we eat slow down the cognitive decline? We explore the research behind the ageing brain, the role of nutrition and tips on how to introduce ‘brain food’ to your plate at mealtimes.

As we age, our brain processing capability begins to gradually decline.  The ageing brain is characterised by decreased cognitive performance, which means you may become a little forgetful, memory recall may become less accurate or take longer, and short-term memory may decline. However, the good news is with simple dietary changes the ageing of the brain may be slowed. Read further to find out more.

Contributing factors to the ageing brain

There are several theories that explain ageing.  Often ageing is thought of as cellular ageing, this accounts for the quality of the cells throughout the body and their ability to divide.

Cell division is an important process that allows old or infected cells to be replaced by new cells. During ageing the replacement of old or injured brain cells slows, and there is a point where a greater number of brain cells ‘die’ than are replaced.

Cellular death or cellular damage is linked to oxidative damage, this is damage that is incurred by free radicals.  Free radicals are aggressive molecules that are produced in response to toxins, pollution and even certain body processes.  Oxidative load describes the increased exposure to oxidative damage purely due to the number of years you have lived.  For example, a 50-year-old has had double the time exposed to pollutants and environmental toxins than a 25-year-old.

There are two vital aspects of reducing ageing of the brain:  

1. Energy production in the brain cells

2. The production of the brain signalling molecule; acetylcholine.

A vital feature of the cell is the mitochondria, this is the location in the cell that energy is produced.  
The energy capacity of the mitochondria decreases as we age, plus, optimal brain function is a result of an adequate amount of the neurotransmitter, acetylcholine.

Acetylcholine is the signalling agent that passes between brain cells that allows memory formation, learning, knowledge acquisition and recall.  These vital factors that counter ageing are highly impacted by diet and food choice.

For example, the production of acetylcholine is influenced by dietary B vitamins, especially choline.  However, should appetite reduce, and habitual food consumption decrease in variety, it will reduce nutrient availability.

Brain Food

Chances are you have read the above and thought of several occasions of when you have been forgetful and so, you are feeling motivated to implement a few simple changes.  The next section will outline which foods and nutrients can help to improve brain function.

A few changes in what you eat is a great place to start.  Do not try to implement everything at once, but look at what would be the easiest, for example, adding 2 differently coloured vegetables to your evening meal.  Make one small change each week, so that over the period of a few months you have achieved the points below:

Reduce the amount of processed foods that you eat.  Consider replacing the ready meals, packet burgers and pizza with homemade salads, soups, stews and slow roasts.  A simple way to identify a processed food from a wholefood is to read the ingredients list.  If it has one ingredient, it is a wholefood, for example, cabbage, banana, eggs, compared to a ready meal which has a long list of ingredients, some of which are unpronounceable!

Follow a rainbow diet. Aim to eat at least one portion of vegetables or fruit daily in each of the colours, red, green, orange, yellow alongside white, purple and blue.

Increase your omega-3 intake. Plan for 3-4 meals weekly that provide omega-3 essential fatty acids, these can include oily fish and algae such as spirulina and chlorella.  These are great sources of omega-3 essential fatty acids in the form of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).  Research has shown that EPA and DHA can interrupt the inflammatory cascade and so contribute to an anti-inflammatory effect.

Replace sugar laden foods with fruit, nuts, seeds or dates. While we are on the subject of sugar, breakfast cereals often contain a lot of sugar.  Consider yogurt with fruit, smoothies, eggs with vegetables, besides sugar free porridge or avocado based meals.

Brain specific nutrients, fats and botanicals

Here are five key nutrients which have been researched for their support in slowing cognitive decline.

B Vitamins

B vitamins, especially Choline, B2, B6, B12 and folate are involved in the functioning and maintenance of brain cells. Choline, found in eggs, offal and in very small amounts in legumes is used in the production of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.

This neurotransmitter is responsible for cognitive performance within learning and memory.  The other B vitamins assist the production of energy, hormones, neurotransmitters and in the replacement of old or injured brain cells. Natural sources of vitamins includes seeds, nuts and shellfish.

Alpha Lipoic Acid

Cellular energy produces by-products, called free radicals and it is free radicals that exert oxidative damage.  Subsequently a regular supply of nutrients with antioxidant effects can counter oxidative damage.

A potent anti-oxidant is Alpha Lipoic Acid, a compound found in broccoli and spinach, but what makes alpha lipoic acid so special is that it has the capacity to cross the blood brain barrier, the brain’s protective structure to exert the anti-oxidant effects.  This could improve overall brain health and offer a protective effect to the brain cells and their function.

Omega 3 essential fatty acids

Omega 3 essential fatty acids - especially in the forms EPA and DHA -  perform a number of roles in the body, however its impact on the structure of the brain cells and for quelling inflammation has become a major focus of research.

When a brain cell has a large volume of omega-3 essential fatty acids in the membrane, it allows for the easy passage of nutrients into the cell and the exit of waste compounds.  This flexibility maintains a healthy cell.  Should the brain cell have a dominance of omega 6 essential fatty acids within the membrane, it loses this flexibility.


Phosphatidylserine is crucial in cellular processes. Every cell including brain cells have ‘gates’ to allow nutrients in and waste out and each gate is dependent on the presence of phosphatidylserine.   

Phosphatidylserine belongs to a group of fatty acids called phospholipids found mainly in dairy, eggs and lecithin. Without phosphatidylserine, the ‘gate’ becomes defunct and ultimately the cell will no longer function.  

Ginkgo biloba

Ginkgo bilobo may be oldest species of tree on earth, however it has continued to draw the attention of researchers, particularly in supporting good blood circulation in the brain.

Its beautiful fan shaped leaves are known to exert a potent vasodilatory (widening of the blood vessels) effect.  In some cases of cognitive decline, the reason can be because the brain cells are starved of nutrients and oxygen.  It is suggested that the blood vessels that supply blood to the brain cells have become stiff and constricted. Subsequently, the vasodilatory effect exerted by Ginkgo is considered useful for the provision of nutrients and oxygen to the brain cells to allow proper function.

There are a host of steps that can be taken to help counter the effects of ageing upon the brain, from dietary changes to the introduction of nutrients or botanicals.  It can be useful to focus on one change each week, so you do not feel overwhelmed.

Author: Jenny Carson is a Nutritional Practitioner and Technical Services Manager at Viridian Nutrition. She holds a BSc honours degree in Nutritional Science and is a Master of Research (MRes) in Public Health.

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Roberts Katherine L., Allen Harriet A. Perception and Cognition in the Ageing Brain: A Brief Review of the Short- and Long-Term Links between Perceptual and Cognitive Decline.  Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience 8, 2016: 39

The information contained in this article is not intended to treat, diagnose or replace the advice of a health practitioner. Please consult a qualified health practitioner if you have a pre-existing health condition or are currently taking medication. Food supplements should not be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet.


TAGS: Brain Health


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