As you age, your production of new neurons slows down dramatically. Researchers have known for years that exercise stimulates the growth of neurons and is particularly valuable for older people with cognitive decline.
Now research from the Queensland Brain Institute (QBI) suggests another way to boost the growth of neurons, selenium.
Selenium is a mineral which you can find in meats, nuts and grains. Brazil nuts are a good quality source of selenium. It is also available as a supplement and is in many multi-vitamins.
But it’s not as simple as taking selenium. Other factors come into play. QBI’s lead researcher Dr Tara Walker said physical exercise elevates the levels of a protein that transports selenium in the blood.
This latest research suggests that selenium can assist with the growth of neurons much as exercise does. This work is preliminary as it is only done with mice so far. Dr Walker said, “When selenium supplements were given to the mice, the production of neurons increased, reversing the cognitive deficits observed in ageing.” (Queensland Brain Institute 2022)
There is hope too that selenium can assist in stroke recovery. Mice who suffered learning and memory problems after a stroke regained normal brain function when given selenium.
Often, we encourage older people to exercise to improve and maintain cognitive function. However this is not always easy due to limited mobility, pain and chronic health conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis. Adding selenium to your diet appears to be a realistic alternative. (This research has been published in Cell Metabolism February 2022).
Older members of your family can also benefit by having adequate sources of Vitamin D. According to Associate Professor Thomas Burne from QBI, a lack of Vitamin D is implicated in many cognitive disorders.
Vitamin D plays many roles. It is neuroprotective and it regulates the immune system. Low Vitamin D can also affect your mood. This is recognised in the SAD, the Seasonal Affective Disorder. Luckily a shortage of sunlight is not such a big problem in Australia, so cases of SAD are lower than in the northern hemisphere.
However living in a care home or staying at home due to fears of COVID can mean older people in your life are getting less sunlight and less Vitamin D than optimal. Vitamin D is involved in transporting calcium to your muscle cells so they can function properly. This is why a lack of Vitamin D can lead to increased risks of falls.
Dr Houston from the Sticht Center on Aging says Vitamin D also plays a role in regulating protein synthesis within muscle cells, which is necessary for building and repairing muscle fibres. Individuals with low vitamin D levels are more likely to have a slower gait, poorer balance and less strength than their peers.
Good sources of Vitamin D include sunlight, cod liver oil, salmon, tuna, sardines, eggs and beef liver. Some dairy foods and cereals are fortified with vitamin D. Various apps are available to help you monitor your Vitamin D levels and sun exposure.
WebMD warns that vitamin D deficiency can be mistaken for depression. Low vitamin D levels can show up as feelings of hopelessness, sadness, and despair. You or your family member may be experiencing many troubling symptoms including fatigue, forgetfulness, suicidal thoughts, anxiety, difficulty sleeping or a loss of appetite.
Ask your doctor to check your vitamin D levels in your blood. Also use the cooler months of the year to get some sun. And just for fun and sun, reinstate the Sunday drive.
Kendall Morton is Director of Home Care Assistance Sunshine Coast to Wide Bay. Call 5491 6888 or email firstname.lastname@example.org