Nutrition and memory, with the Russell Partnership

This month, Professor David Russell and Charlotte Harbour explore whether nutrition can affect cognitive processes such as memory and retention

At the Russell Partnership, we believe that you are what you eat (or what you absorb!). Traditional thought tells us that our nutritional status directly affects our physical health and disease outcomes – this is especially pertinent in conditions such as type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome. We’ve also previously touched upon how nutrition can affect mental health outcomes such as anxiety and depression through the microbiome (gut health) and micronutrient status. This month, we’ll explore whether nutrition can affect cognitive processes such as memory and retention.

A study from the Advances in Nutrition Journal suggests that one area of the brain particularly sensitive to bodily health, lifestyle factors, and environmental conditions is the hippocampus. The hippocampus is a small region in the brain involved in the formation of new memories and is associated with learning and emotion. The study discusses how the size of the hippocampus is smaller in individuals with hypertension, type 2 diabetes and obesity alongside the effects of nutrients such as omega 3 fatty acids and flavonoids. Indeed, animal studies suggest that ingestion of omega 3 fatty acids (found in salmon, sardines, mackerel, eggs, flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts) were beneficial to hippocampal health. Antioxidants (found in berries, green vegetables and nuts) were also shown to be beneficial. In contrast, low intakes of micronutrients or high intakes of saturated fat, refined sugar, and alcohol have each been shown to negatively affect hippocampal memory function.

Professor David Russell

Another more recent study suggests that a high-fat ‘ketogenic’-style diet was useful in promoting overall longevity and memory in mice. The ketogenic diet is a low-carbohydrate lifestyle, which when implemented thoughtfully, is high in healthy fats such as olive oil, coconuts, oily fish, eggs, avocados, nuts, seeds and low-starch vegetables. With all animal studies, we should interpret results with a healthy scepticism, however, the results do support popular thought that sugar and corresponding insulin spikes may damage memory optimisation.

In summary, there certainly does appear to be link between nutritional status and memory potential. Therefore, let us continue to deliver healthy and low-sugar options to our students which will enable them to achieve academically and remember those precious moments of university life.


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