Low-calorie diets improve memory in old age

By Ed Yong | January 26, 2009 5:00 pm

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchPeople diet for many reasons – to fit into clothes, to look more attractive, or for the sake of their health. But to improve their memory? It’s an interesting idea, and one that’s been given fresh support by Veronica Witte and colleagues from the University of Munster in Germany.

Witte found that elderly people who slash the calories in their diet by 30% were better able to remember lists of words than people who stuck to their normal routine. It’s the first experiment to show that cutting calories can improve human memory at an age when declining memory is par for the course.

The benefits of low-calorie diets have been extensively studied in animals, ever since Clive McCay discovered that “caloric restriction” doubled the lifespan of rats, over 70 years ago. Many studies have found that such diets could help to slow the brain’s eventual decline and protect its neurons from the ravages of ageing. But until now, no experiments had confirmed that the same benefits are relevant to the human brain.

Witte did so by recruiting fifty healthy people, aged 52- 68 and asking twenty of them to cut their calorie intake by 30%. Experienced dieticians gave them advice on following their new diet and were just a phone call away for the duration of the experiment.  A second group of 20 volunteers were asked to eat more unsaturated fatty acids, such as olive and fish oils; studies have also found that these could improve mental performance in animals and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease in humans. The 10 remaining volunteers carried on with business as usual.

The diets lasted for three months. At the start, middle and end of the period, the recruits had to fill in detailed food diaries, listing everything they ate or drank for a week. Witte measured their height, weight and other physical traits, and took blood samples from them. She also tested their memories by asking them to learn a list of 15 words and repeat as many as they could after half an hour.

While the unsaturated fatty acid diet and the normal one did nothing of note, the low-calorie regime certainly did. Witte found that this group remembered more words and made fewer mistakes at the end of the three months than they did before the experiment started.

Witte argues that it was the drop in calories that lay behind these changes. After all, the low-calorie group certainly followed their instructions. Over the experiment’s duration, they lost weight and their BMIs went down by about a unit on average. When asked about their experiences afterwards, most said that they had “definitely” or “predominantly” stuck to their regime and none of them claimed to have been more physically active.

Of course, it’s possible that the low-calorie group were actually benefiting from the interaction they had with the dieticians, rather than anything to do with their diets. Just recently, I blogged about a study which showed that richer environments could potentially be used to restore lost memories. However, Witte thinks that this explanation is a very unlikely one, for the volunteers who ate more unsaturated fatty acids also had friendly dieticians to talk to, and their memories did not get better. 

So what was behind their superior recollection? Their blood samples provide a clue – after the three months, the volunteers had lower levels of the hormone insulin circulating round their bodies. In fact, those who showed the greatest improvements in memory also had the largest falls in insulin – a link that was particularly pronounced in those who stuck most closely to their dietary instructions.

Witte suggests that the falling insulin levels could help to explain the improvements in memory. Insulin has a number of roles to play throughout the body. In the brain, it’s involved in signalling pathways that protect neurons and play a role in securing long-term memories.

But you can get too much of a good thing – an excess of insulin can lead to resistance, where far more of the hormone is needed to provoke the same response. This “insulin resistance” weakens systems in the body that use insulin as a signalling molecule, including those involved in memory and learning. So low-calorie diets could improve memory by lowering insulin levels, sensitising the body to this crucial hormone, improving insulin signalling in the brain and increasing its neurons’ chances of survival.

The same chain of events has been suggested by animal studies too and while it’s a good explanation, it’s probably not the only one. For example, Witte also found that the low-calorie volunteers had lower levels of C-reactive protein – a protein produced by fat cells and linked to inflammation. How inflammation could be linked to poorer memory is unclear, but some studies have connected low levels of C-reactive protein to strong scores in word-learning tasks. The details of this link need to be exposed by future studies.

For the moment, Witte’s work suggests a promising and relatively simple way of improving memory in old age. It will, of course, be important to repeat the experiment with a much larger number of people.  And it will be interesting to see whether a low-calorie diet has any other mental benefits, beyond the ability to commit words to memory.

As a final note, I gave my wife a quick summary of this research and she said, “Doesn’t this mean that people who eat less chocolate will be better able to remember not eating any chocolate? That’s sad.”

Reference: A. V. Witte, M. Fobker, R. Gellner, S. Knecht, A. Floel (2009). Caloric restriction improves memory in elderly humans Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0808587106

More on ageing: Going strong at 100 – extreme lifespans don’t mean extreme disability

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Medicine & health, Memory

Comments (9)

  1. I wonder if the benefits are long-term or whether the reduction in calories only works until the body gets used to the new regime. In any case, I tend to agree with your wife. Is more memory worth less chocolate?

  2. Hi, Ed! I’d guess it’s the fat. Supposedly a very low-fat diet leaves you with capillaries that are less clogged and better circulation (hence more oxygen in the brain).

  3. If a hypothesis we are trying to publish is correct, semisweet chocolate is probably beneficial, if anything. I can’t say anything more yet, unfortunately.

  4. Bill Moody

    Thanks for the complete summary of the study — something missing in most media reports. The study “proves” a great deal less than it purports to prove and than has been attributed to it. It is so poorly constructed — the sample size, the methodology (diaries), and the duration are all inadequate — that one can only regard its findings and especially its stated conclusions as unreliable and trivial as well as dangerously misleading.
    First, the duration (three months) makes drawing any conclusions hazardous.
    Second, the memory test employed involves short-term memory. As you correctly point out, insulin plays an important role in protecting long-term memory which was apparently not tested.
    Third, while too much insulin is indeed not helpful, it is highly unlikely (close to impossible) that a normal insulin-sensitive person could develop insulin-resistance in three months. It is also very unlikely that anyone within the age group of this experiment who was insulin-resistant could become insulin-sensitive within the 3 month period. I would suggest that the reduced insulin levels of themselves most likely had nothing to do with the change in memory.
    To reduce calories, as opposed to carbohydrates, it is near certain that the subjects reduced both carbohydrate and total food intake. The reduced insulin levels are almost certainly a direct result of the reduced food intake, in particular the reduced carbohydrate intake.
    Moreover, reducing one’s food intake and especially carbohydrate intake is very likely to produce an increase in both adrenalin and cortisol levels because this is how the body triggers internal sugar production when there is insufficient sugar being eaten, which sugar the brain requires constantly. The higher adrenalin and cortisol levels are the more likely cause of the increased short term memory. However, over the long term, having levels of adrenalin and cortisol higher than insulin will lead to accelerated aging including memory, especially long-term memory, impairment. The “good news” is that chronic higher levels of those hormones also cause heart attacks and strokes, so one might not live long enough to lose one’s memory.

  5. Bill Moody

    Oh, sorry, missed the c-reactive protein comment. Over the short term (definitely 3 months), high adrenalin and cortisol levels will most likely reduce inflammation (and c-reactive protein levels). But, ironically, over the long term they increase inflammation which likely plays a significant role in heart attacks, strokes and possibly even Alzheimer’s.

  6. Enhance Memory

    Amazing article!To reduce calories, as opposed to carbohydrates, it is near certain that the subjects reduced both carbohydrate and total food intake. The reduced insulin levels are almost certainly a direct result of the reduced food intake, in particular the reduced carbohydrate intake. you can get more information about enhancing memory from this as well.

  7. When developing a science fair project it is important to look for unique cause and effect relationships. For example, as this blog points out, the possible link between a low calorie diet and improved memory function in old age.

  8. Anatolie

    There is another study on monkeys:
    .. two groups of squirrel monkeys. One group was on a low-calorie diet (30% calorie restricted), while the other were on a normal diet. In both groups, the diets continued throughout their lives until they died of natural causes. They found that the monkeys in the low-calorie diet group were much less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease type brain changes than the monkeys in the normal diet group.

  9. barbord

    The study does not control for weight loss! Only the CR group lost weight. Only the CR group has better memory. So is it the weight loss (by any means) or specifically the CR intervention? The study does not prove or disprove that “CR improves memory”.

    Also, the subjects in the CR arm “were instructed to reduce caloric intake aiming at a 30% reduction relative to previous habits, over a period of 3 months” Memory measurements were taken at the beginning and at… three months. So the CR arm only reached a true CR state only at the end of the study. So I am not sure what this tells us about CR at all.

    Or am I missing something on either count?

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