Foods That Fight Memory Loss

By Carole Jackson, Bottom Line Health

There’s a new way to potentially prevent Alzheimer’s—a disease that we know frustratingly little about—and it’s not some exotic, expensive or potentially dangerous drug. It’s actually an affordable, natural component that’s found in everyday foods. For the first time, there’s a human study that confirms an association between dietary choline, an amino acid found in eggs and some other foods, and better cognitive performance. The study, from Boston University School of Medicine, appeared in the November 2011 issue of theAmerican Journal of Clinical Nutrition.


Researchers investigated the dietary habits of 744 women and 647 men ranging from 36 to 83 years of age. None had dementia when the study started. In the early 1990s and then again between 1998 and 2001, participants filled out a questionnaire about their diets—they were asked how often they had eaten particular foods in the past year. After the second questionnaire was given, the researchers performed neuropsychological tests to evaluate the participants’ cognitive skills, including verbal memory (remembering a story) and visual memory (remembering images). They also did MRI brain scans to see if there were any tell-tale lesions in the white matter areas called white-matter hyperintensities (WMH). WMH in the brain is considered a marker of vascular disease and is strongly associated with cognitive impairments that precede Alzheimer’s disease.

The results: First, this study demonstrated that people who were currently eating the most choline performed better on tests of verbal and visual memory, compared with those who currently had the lowest choline intake. Researchers also found that those who had eaten the highest amounts of choline years earlier (as demonstrated by the first questionnaire) were more likely to have little or no WMH. In other words, eating lots of choline may make your memory sharper, and it also may reduce the risk for damage to the brain and even Alzheimer’s disease.


To learn more, I called study coauthor Rhoda Au, PhD, associate professor of neurology at Boston University. Dr. Au emphasized that this is an observational study, so it doesn’t prove cause and effect, but it does show a link between choline and memory. Why? Choline’s crucial contribution to cognition, said Dr. Au, may be as a building block for a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, which is known to help transmit information between neurons faster.


How much choline do you need each day? The recommendation from the Institute of Medicine for men is a daily intake of 550 mg and for women, 425 mg. The richest food sources are…

  • 3.5 ounces of beef liver—430 mg
  • One large egg—126 mg
  • 3.5 ounces of salmon—91 mg
  • 3.5 ounces (just under one-half cup) of broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower or navy beans—approximately 40 mg.

Other sources of choline include cod, almonds, tofu, milk and peanut butter.

Supplements of choline are available, but high doses (more than 3,500 mg per day for adults over age 18, according to Institute of Medicine) can cause symptoms like vomiting and excessive sweating. So if you want to take a supplement, talk to your doctor first—discuss how much you eat in your diet already so you can figure out whether (and what amount of) a supplement is necessary.

What’s so exciting about this research, in my view, is that while most studies concerning dementia are performed with people who already show signs of it, this study set out to investigate what people can do that might prevent dementia—and the choline connection seems promising. It’s so easy to get more choline in our diets—it’s in our refrigerators right now!

Source: Rhoda Au, PhD, associate professor of neurology, Boston University School of Medicine, and director of neuropsychology, Framingham Heart Study.