Whether you are young, old, or in between, taking vitamin-mineral supplements can improve brain function, possibly boost performance on IQ tests, improve mood and memory, and slash the chances of brain deterioration as you get older. Indeed, the evidence is so compelling that it seems incredible everyone is not taking vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants to keep their brains functioning at peak levels for a lifetime.
As Dr. Denham Harman, professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska, and others demonstrated in animals or humans as long ago as the 1950s, your brain, general health, and longevity are initially shaped long before you are born by the vitamins and antioxidants your mother ingests during pregnancy and even before conception.
A string of studies, many done a decade ago and seemingly lost to public consciousness, have found that giving multi‑vitamins and specific vitamin supplements to schoolchildren can dramatically increase IQ scores. Research among adults of all ages also finds that certain vitamin and mineral supplements improve mood, learning ability, memory, attention span, eye-hand coordination, and reaction times, even in people who show no overt signs of deficiency.
Further, mountains of stunning evidence have piled up in the last few years, documenting that middle-aged and older people can stave off intellectual deterioration and even retrieve mental faculties thought lost forever by taking vitamins, particularly antioxidant vitamins and B vitamins. In one remarkable finding, vitamin E equaled a potent pharmaceutical drug in treating the most dreaded brain disease of all—Alzheimer’s. Vitamins also protect the brains of normal healthy people. A recent random survey of 880 elderly men and women by European researchers showed that those with high vitamin and antioxidant blood levels had stronger intellectual powers, less depression, and less risk of losing their brains to dementia.
Then why isn’t everyone downing vitamin supplements to maximize mental functioning? Since vitamins and minerals are generally safe in required doses and relatively inexpensive compared with remedies needed to rectify the potential damage to society in health and educational costs of not taking vitamins, why isn’t the practice more widespread and medically encouraged?
One reason is conventional nutrition still maintains that the brain is not impaired unless the body is in a state of classic malnutrition, induced only after serious and prolonged deficiencies. Such malnutrition, characterized by overt physical signs of wasting away and rock bottom blood levels of nutrients, is considered rare in Western countries.
However, more daring researchers argue that the brain is the target of subtle deficiencies that leave it secretly impoverished long before any physical signs of conventional malnutrition are noticeable. It’s well known that a wide range of vitamins and minerals are linked to psychological functioning and that many such nutrients are missing in typical high-fat, highly processed diets. “What is adequate to prevent physical signs and symptoms of malnutrition may not be adequate to prevent impaired mental function,” says researcher Steven J. Schoenthaler at California State University.
Even the tiniest deficiencies could cause subtle and undetected disruption in psychological functioning, contends David Benton, a world-renowned research psychologist at University College in Swansea, Wales. “Cognitive activity,” says Dr. Benton, “involves the summated activity of many billions of neurones, and countless biochemical pathways and their associated enzymes. It may well be that relatively small dietary deficiences that are dismissed as causing only minor changes to the activity of a single enzyme, will along with many other similar minor effects, have a measurable and potentially important cumulative influence on cerebral functioning.”
Much evidence, in fact, raises the specter that modern western society is rife with a pernicious form of “subclinical” (symptomless) or “marginal” malnutrition that leaves no obvious traces of brain malfunction. The brain may get enough vitamins and minerals to appear to function “normally.” But is it really operating at optimal levels? Some researchers believe substantial segments of the population do not get nearly the levels of vitamins and minerals needed to optimize brain function. Deterioration in mental function previously attributed to “normal aging,” may, in fact, be at least partly due to subtle undetected and correctable deficiencies of specific vitamins needed by the brain, says Katherine Tucker, associate professor of nutritional epidemiology at Tufts University. “It’s a new and powerful idea,” she says, “with accumulating evidence to support it.”
It seems obvious that the poor-quality, high-fat, low-vitamin diets of many Americans, sadly, including schoolchildren, are inadequate to fuel peak brain performance, and that undernourished brains might perk up when supplied vitamin and mineral supplements. In short, our brains quietly survive and endure on poor diets in a permanent state of lethargy that we accept as “normal” because we can’t imagine otherwise. We are unaware that we have the potential to be smarter and feel better—that our brains, when properly nourished, can reach for and achieve more and function at higher levels.
BOTTOM LINE: Vitamins, impressive studies show, can help ensure maximum brain functioning from birth to old age.