Mind Games: Strange Strategies for Boosting Your Brain

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The best brain booster of them all is the herb Ginkgo Biloba. Ginkgo helps healthy people keep their cognitive powers, and it helps people with Alzheimer's to fight for them

Several double-blind studies show that ginkgo helps cognition in seniors, including significantly improving memory and speed of processing as well as significantly improving mood and ability to perform daily activities. In a really important twenty year study, 3,612 people aged 65 or over had a slower rate of cognitive decline than people taking either the drug piracetam or nothing.

If you're younger than the people in the above studies, don't click off the page yet! Ginkgo also helps memory in young people. Double-blind research shows that ginkgo benefits mental performance in healthy adults between 45 and 65 (1).

But what if you know someone who is no longer healthy but already battling Alzheimer's. The best answer is still ginkgo. A double-blind study of people with dementia found clinically significant improvement in memory, attention and cognitive function on ginkgo, while those on placebo continued to decline. A subsequent analysis of neuropsychiatric subscales found significant improvement of delusions, hallucinations, apathy, agitation, anxiety, irritability and depression on ginkgo, but no improvement with the placebo.

But does ginkgo work as well as drugs? Better. When researchers compared ginkgo studies to studies that used two conventional drugs, they found that all three significantly helped, but that ginkgo produced less side effects (2). Later research found more people respond, and respond better, to ginkgo than to the cholinesterase inhibitor tacrine. Cholinesterase inhibitors are commonly used for Alzheimer's. When researchers compared ginkgo to four cholinesterase inhibitors, they found ginkgo to be better and safer than tacrine and comparable to the newer donepezil. Subsequent research has found ginkgo to be as good as donepezil while being better tolerated.

Based on a review of 33 good quality studies, the Cochrane Collaboration concluded that there is "promising evidence of improvement in cognition and function" in elderly people with dementia. And a recent systematic review and meta-analysis of nine double-blind studies of people with Alzheimer's, dementia, age-associated memory impairment or mild cognitive impairment concluded that 160-240mg of ginkgo significantly improves cognition, and that a 240mg dose also significantly improves neuropsychiatric symptoms and activities of daily living.

More Herbs that Help

Though king of the cognition herbs, ginkgo is not the only one that helps. A just published review of research conducted between 1970 and 2017 wanted to see what evidence there was for herbs protecting against cognitive decline. It concluded that there is evidence that gingko, dark chocolate, bacopa and saffron all have a beneficial effect on improving cognition.

Several double-blind studies show that bacopa can boost learning ability, attention and memory in healthy people (here, here, here, here, here and here). A systematic review of six high quality double-blind studies concluded that bacopa helps improve recall in healthy people.

For Alzheimer's and dementia, saffron is as effective as, and safer than, donepezil. 30mg a day of saffron extract is significantly more effective than placebo in people with probable Alzheimer's.

As we discuss in our book Chocolate: Superfood of the Gods, a growing body of evidence suggests that dark chocolate is good for your brain. When healthy people over the age of 65 eat dark chocolate, they lower their risk of cognitive decline by 41%. In perhaps the most amazing study of chocolate's effect on the brain, people between the ages of 50 and 69 who ate dark chocolate reversed age-related memory decline: they had about a 25% increase in memory function compared to people who got a placebo. The researchers said that "If a participant had the memory of a typical 60-year-old at the beginning of the study, after three months that person on average had the memory of a typical 30 or 40-year-old." In a double-blind study of elderly people, dark chocolate significantly improved visual search speed, processing speed, mental flexibility and executive function. Verbal fluency tests used to assess cognitive impairment in Alzheimer's also significantly improved. Dark chocolate also works on healthy, young people: a single dose of dark chocolate significantly improves spatial.

Mint: A Brainy Family of Herbs

Recent research is suggesting that help could come from an unexpected place: mint. Several members of the mint family are turning out to be among the most promising herbs for memory and Alzheimer's, including sage extract (here and here), rosemary leaf powder, lemon balm extract (here, here and here) and spearmint extract.

More Brain Boosters

Seniors who get higher amounts of vitamin E from their food are 25% less likely to develop dementia, including Alzheimer's, than people who get the least. An important double-blind study of people with Alzheimer's found that those given the drug selegiline outlived those given a placebo by 215 days. But those given vitamin E outlived the placebo group by 230 days. And while 33% of those on a placebo had to be institutionalized, 39% of those given the drug, but only 26% of those given the vitamin, did. When 561 people with mild to moderate Alzheimer's were given 2000IU of vitamin E, the drug memantine, both or a placebo to test the effect on activities of daily living, the vitamin E group declined by 3.15 points less than the placebo group and by 1.98 points less than the drug group. Vitamin E slowed progression by 19% per year compared to placebo.

Phosphatidylserine significantly improves memory. A large double-blind study found phosphatidylserine significantly improves memory, learning, mood, and behaviour in people with Alzheimer's (Aging 1993;5:123-33).

Tea Time for the Brain

A large study of elderly people found that, compared to people who drank less than a cup a day, those who drank 1-2 cups of green tea had 1% less risk of dementia, 3-4 cups had 7% reduced risk and 5 or more had 32% reduction. Other studies have found that regular tea drinkers, especially green tea drinkers, reduce their risk of neurocognitive disorders by 61%. People at the greatest risk of Alzheimer's reduce the risk by 86%. Other studies have found green tea reduces the risk of dementia by 74%  and that a green tea supplement significantly improves scores of dementia and memory in people with Alzheimer's, dementia or mild cognitive impairment. In an intriguing tea study, brain imaging confirmed that drinking tea actually protects against age-related cognitive decline by better organizing brain structure: it contributes to more efficiently interconnected regions of the brain.

Cognitive Flexibility

Cognitive flexibility refers to the ability to switch between tasks when planning or reasoning. Double-blind research shows that 240mg of ginkgo significantly improves cognitive flexibility in healthy people aged 50-65. Omega-3s can also help. Higher levels of omega-3 correlate with improved cognitive flexibility and increased volume of a region of the brain thought to contribute to cognitive flexibility in elderly people at genetically higher risk of cognitive decline.

Brain Boosters When You've Had a Stroke

A small double-blind study has shown that pomegranate polyphenols enhance "cognitive and functional recovery after ischemic stroke." It significantly improves neurological, language and attention scores as well as functional independence and locomotion and leads to less time in hospital.

Brain Boosters When You're Overweight

Strangely, being overweight is associated with having worse memory. It is also associated with lower carotenoid levels in the brain. A study of overweight adults found that higher levels of lutein from diet are associated with better memory performance.

Brain Boosters When You Have Diabetes

The risk of cognitive impairment is higher in people with diabetes or prediabetes. But researchers found in study of 93 prediabetics that the dietary cinnamon significantly improved working memory (Nutr Res 2016;36:305-310).

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1. Kubisch U. Ginkgo also improves cognitive performance in the healthy. Deutsche Apotheker Zeitung 2002;142(4):40-42.

2. Letzel H, Haan J, Feil WB. Nootropics: Efficacy and tolerability of products from three active substance classes. J Drug Dev Clin Pract 1996;8:77–94.

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