NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – Cutting calories may improve memory among healthy elderly men and women, a new study from Germany hints. In the study, researchers found that people who cut their calorie intake by approximately 30 percent performed better on standard memory tests after just three months.
"Our study may help to generate novel prevention strategies to maintain cognitive functions into old age," Dr. A. Veronica Witte and colleagues from University of Munster wrote in the latest issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Animal studies have shown that diets low in calories and rich in unsaturated fatty acids - the kind found in olive oil and fish - are beneficial for brain function, helping to improve memory in aging rats.
To see whether the same effects can be induced in humans, Witte's team divided 50 normal- to overweight individuals whose average age was 60 years into three groups. One group restricted by up to 30 percent the amount of calories they consumed; a second group increased their consumption of unsaturated fatty acids by up to 20 percent; and a third group, serving as the control group, made no changes.
According to the investigators, the calorie-restricted group saw a significant 20 percent average increase in verbal memory scores after 3 months. In contrast, no significant changes in memory performance emerged in the two other groups.
The investigators also noticed that memory improvements in the calorie-restricted group correlated with decreases in insulin levels and "biomarkers" of inflammation in the body, and that these changes were most pronounced in those individuals who stuck closest to the prescribed calorie-restricted diet.
"To our knowledge, the current results provide the first experimental evidence in humans that caloric restriction improves memory in the elderly," Witte and colleagues note.
The results of this study, they add, "may help to develop new prevention and treatment strategies for maintaining cognitive health into old age."