It’s often assumed that forgetfulness—and even senility—are inevitable as we get older. While it is true that the hippocampus, a part of the brain that is crucial for memory, shrinks at a rate of about 1 to 2 percent a year in older adults, it is possible to stop this shrinkage—and ensuing memory loss—in its tracks.
One solution may be to up your daily dosage of B vitamins. A 2010 Oxford University study found that high doses reduced the rate of brain atrophy by 50 percent for older adults with mild memory problems, and another recent study, published in the journal Neurology, found that people with optimal levels of Vitamin B12 were six times less likely to experience age-related brain shrinkage.
Although B12 is crucial to our cognitive well-being, Tufts University has reported that almost half of Americans have a B12 deficiency.
One significant reason for this deficiency is that the vitamin can be extremely difficult to digest. Folks with weakened digestive strength—including people over 50 and those taking antacids—are therefore at risk. Vitamin B12 requires a large amount of hydrochloric acid (HCL) in the stomach in order to be freed from the food we’ve ingested. Decreased HCL is the primary cause of wheat and dairy intolerances, so if you have trouble digesting these, you may not have the needed HCL to assimilate B12. In ayurveda, HCL levels are maintained through good dietary habits and an herb called trikatu, which helps the body reset its ability to produce its own HCL. (Dose: one trikatu capsule 15 minutes prior to meals with 12 ounces of water for three months to enhance HCL production.)
Vegetarians are also at risk for B12 deficiency due to the lack of the vitamin in their diet. B12 is naturally found in protein-rich foods such as meat, fish, cheese, milk, yogurt, and eggs. Small amounts of the vitamin can be gleaned from vegan sources, including sea vegetables, brewer’s yeast, soybeans, hops, and alfalfa, as well as fermented foods like miso, sauerkraut, and tempeh.
Brain shrinkage is reversible if you catch your B12 deficiency early and make a conscious effort to increase your intake. Besides optimizing your levels of HCL and eating more of the foods listed above, try taking a B12 supplement—3000 to 4000 mcg a day for three to four weeks. A sublingual supplement that combines B12, B6, and folic acid is particularly effective because it delivers the vitamins directly into your bloodstream. See if you notice a boost in energy, mood, and memory with more B vitamins in your system.
In addition to upping your B-vitamin intake, you can prevent age-related brain shrinkage—and keep dementia at bay—by hitting the gym. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in January 2011 found that vigorous exercise can effectively reverse hippocampal volume loss and improve memory function in older adults.