PhotoChildren aren’t the only ones we should be encouraging to eat all their vegetables. As people age doctors say good nutrition becomes even more important.

The National Institute on Aging encourages people of advancing years to maintain a healthy diet as a prevention against osteoporosis, high blood pressure, heart disease and even certain types of cancer.

You might not think you need as much energy as when you were younger, but the agency, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), says you definitely need the nutrients contained in a healthy diet.

Mental sharpness

Researchers at the University of Illinois say that diet should include plenty of omega-3 fatty acids found in fish. Their recently-published study found that older adults who consumed a diet with lots of omega-3s did better than their peers on tests measuring cognitive flexibility – the ability to efficiently switch between tasks or areas of focus.

Brain scans also revealed they had a bigger anterior cingulate cortex, the part of the brain that contributes to cognitive flexibility.

The researchers stop short of claiming an absolute link between DHA and EPA, two omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, and increased mental dexterity in older adults but say the evidence is persuasive.

Critical link

"Recent research suggests that there is a critical link between nutritional deficiencies and the incidence of both cognitive impairment and degenerative neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer's disease," said University of Illinois professor Aron Barbey, who led the study. "Our findings add to the evidence that optimal nutrition helps preserve cognitive function, slow the progression of aging and reduce the incidence of debilitating diseases in healthy aging populations."

Most discussion of cognitive impairment focuses on memory loss, especially in cases of Alzheimer’s. But Marta Zamroziewicz, co-author of the study, says cognitive flexibility and other executive functions are a better predictor of daily functioning.

"Executive function describes processes like planning, reasoning, paying attention, problem solving, impulse control and task switching,” she said. "These functions tend to decline earlier than other cognitive functions in aging."

There have been previous studies that have made the association between omega-3s and cognitive flexibility, suggesting such a link may in fact exist.

What the study found

The Illinois study focused on 40 cognitively healthy older adults between the ages of 65 and 75 who are carriers of a gene variant -- APOE e4 -- that is known to contribute to the risk of developing late-onset Alzheimer's disease. It found the greater the presence of omega-3s in the blood, the better the subjects performed on tests and the larger the anterior cingulate cortex of the brain.

While fish is a rich source of omega-3s, you can also get these nutrients from some vegetables and nuts. Whereever you happen to get them, Harvard professor Dr. Frank Sacks recommends everyone should get at least one rich source of omega-3 daily.

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