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Can Cutting Calories Boost Memory?

Here's another reason to cut back on your calories--it may help you remember where you left your keys.

A new study has found that elderly people who significantly reduced their caloric intake appeared to significantly improve their memory.

Previous research has found the severe caloric restriction might extend longevity, though most of that research has been in animals. And some studies in animals have also suggested it might improve mental abilities. But the new study is believed to be the first to actually produce evidence supporting that idea in people.

Agnes Floel of the University of Munster in Germany and her colleagues studied 50 volunteers who were 60 years old on average. They asked one third to cut their calories by about 30 percent, one third to increase the intake of healthful unsaturated fatty acids by up to 20 percent and a third to eat what they usually did.

After three months, the subjects were tested to see how well they could remember words. Those who cut their calories boosted their scores by about 20 percent, while there was no improvement for the others, the researchers reported this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It is unclear how calorie restriction might improve thinking ability. But the reseachers found that those who cut their calories also experienced decreases in their blood levels of insulin and a substance know as C-reactive protein, which is a measure of inflammation in the body. Previous research has indicated that both of those factors may help the brain work better, the researchers say.

More research is need to explore the findings before anyone recommends calorie cutting just to boost brain function. And obviously, it's no small trick to cut calories by one-third. But assuming we're not underweight it would have clear benefits for most of us -- like helping us drop a few pounds.

By Rob Stein  |  January 29, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Alzheimers/Dementia , Neurological disorders  
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I keep hearing about this research, but no one is saying anything about the QUALITY of the calories those who cut their calories ate. How do we know that it is the calorie restriction that led to improved memory and not just that the calorie cutters ate more healthy foods? Did they control for calorie quality?

It seems to me that the memory boost could have been because the calorie cutters were eating more veggies, for example, and that helped their memory. In this scenario, the caloric restriction might just have been a side effect of eating more healthy foods, not the cause of the memory boost.

Posted by: AFM3 | January 29, 2009 10:05 AM | Report abuse

This is also referred to in "Good Calories, Bad Calories" by Gary Taubes. All indications it is the reduction in refined carbohydrates which leads to a reduction in insulin flowing through the blood that leads to the change. I also wish the specifics of the research was conducted were clearer.

Posted by: SueRi | January 29, 2009 2:48 PM | Report abuse

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