By Hara Estroff Marano, published on March 26, 2004 - last reviewed on October 29, 2007
Increasingly, the kinds of memory problems that have long been seen as inevitable with age are now thought to be avoidable—or at least postponable. The more scientists look at the way we age, the more they recognize the value of eating right and exercising regularly.
If we provide our brains with helpful nutrients, and get sufficient exercise to keep our blood vessels clear, the better our minds will work right up until the end.
Among the most helpful nutrients to the brain are foods that work as antioxidants, those beloved chemicals known for their cell-protecting properties. Antioxidants scavenge and fight off free radicals, wildly reactive rogue molecules of oxygen that damage cell membranes and the DNA, which contains the cells basic operating instructions.
The brain is particularly susceptible to free radical damage because it is exposed to a large amount of oxygen. It's the body's most metabolically active organ, consuming about 20 percent of the body's oxygen, although it totals only 2 percent of our body weight. Free radicals enter our bodies through pollution, fried food and even normal metabolic processes of the body.
The fatty membranes that cover all brain cells are particularly subject to oxidative damage. Free radical damage is implicated in cognitive decline and memory loss as people age and is thought to be a leading cause of Alzheimer's disease.
A steady level of antioxidants—including vitamins C and E—has previously been linked to strong memories. Studies suggest that simply taking supplements of vitamins C and E can prevent the risk of Alzheimer's disease and slow the progression of memory loss.
The two vitamins appear to act synergistically to prevent age-related dementia. Together they cut the risk of the disorder by more than 60 percent.
Experts agree that there is little risk to taking the vitamins. The dosage found to be helpful is well within the range of safety.
The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for vitamin E is 22 international units (IU) and 75 to 90 mg for vitamin C. Multivitamins typically contain amounts of the two antioxidants that are in this range; individual supplements may contain up to 1,000 IU of vitamin E and even more than 1,000 mg of vitamin C.
Researchers have examined the relationship between use of antioxidant supplements and Alzheimer's disease in nearly 5,000 closely followed Utah residents.
The greatest reduction in Alzheimer's disease incidence occurred among people who took individual supplements of the two vitamins in combination, with or without an additional multivitamin. Taking either of the vitamins alone or taking multivitamins did not appear to provide any protective effect.