Could an Indian herb or an extract from the bark of a French pine tree help keep our brains in good nick as we age? Melbourne researcher Professor Con Stough of Swinburne University’s Centre for Human Psychopharmacology has his fingers crossed. He’s leading a government funded study to see if these supplements improve cognition in 500 healthy over 65s.
A second group in the Swinburne study will be taking Pycnogenol, a patented extract from the bark of French maritime pine found to improve working memory in a pilotstudy of 100 healthy 60 to 85-year-olds.
“It’s not clear how Pycnogenol works, but one theory is that it’s by improving blood flow to the brain,” Stough says.
The Swinburne study will also try to find out if extra B vitamins can help older brains - a third group in the study is taking a supplement that combines B vitamins with other nutrients.
“As we get older our levels of B vitamins diminish, although it’s not clear whether this is an effect of ageing, diet or both, but a British study from Cambridge University showed that vitamin B12 improved brain shrinkage,” he explains. “There’s also emerging evidence that vitamins B6 and B12 may help reduce blood levels of homocysteine, an amino acid linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s.”
Just because complementary medicines are registered with the Australian Government’s Therapeutic Goods Administration is no guarantee that a product works either. Although manufacturers must prove to the TGA that their products are safe they don’t have to prove that they actually work.
But whatever turns out to prevent dementia, it’s likely to be something that’s needed earlier rather than later.
“The brain changes that lead to dementia can start decades before there are signs of memory loss which means much of the damage has already been done,” says Stough.
This sounds like a reason for taking the advice of Brain Matters, Alzheimer’s Australia’s brain health program that stresses the need to take steps to fight dementia as early as middle age - measures like being physically active and keeping blood pressure healthy are a good start.