Dairy & Brain Health in Older Americans

  • Article
  • September 6, 2015

The connection between food and the brain is an area of emerging research that fascinates me. Maybe that’s because as I get older I’m more aware of the effects of aging on the body in general, and I want to do all I can to help prevent my brain from “getting rusty.” Most people know that milk is good for their bones and muscles – benefits that are increasingly important with age. But recently, scientists at the University of Kansas Medical Center found a link between drinking milk and the levels of a naturally occurring antioxidant called glutathione in the brain of older, healthy adults.

Glutathione might help stave off oxidative stress in the brain and its resulting damage, which is important because the brain is an organ particularly vulnerable to oxidative stress during aging. Oxidative stress is associated with a number of diseases and conditions – and is one of many factors thought to be involved in the progression of neurodegenerative disorders including Alzheimer’s disease. According to one of the study authors Debra Sullivan, as quoted in an article about the study, “You can basically think of this [oxidative stress] damage like the buildup of rust on your car. If left alone for a long time, the buildup increases and it can cause damaging effects.”

Among 60 older adults who participated in the study, daily servings of dairy foods (e.g., milk, yogurt, and cheese), milk alone or daily consumption of calcium were significantly associated with glutathione concentrations in the brain, as assessed by brain imaging. Glutathione concentrations in the frontal, parietal and frontoparietal areas of the brain were measured for each dairy consumption group – low, moderate or the recommended three servings or more. Adequate consumption of dairy foods as a whole/group and, more specifically, milk was associated with higher glutathione in all three brain areas, while higher calcium consumption was positively associated with glutathione in the parietal and frontoparietal areas of the brain.

The researchers said it is not yet known how dairy foods might influence glutathione concentrations in the brain as this is emerging research. Some research indicates that certain nutrients in milk, such as calcium, riboflavin and cysteine — an amino acid plentiful in whey protein — are involved in the synthesis and/or metabolism of glutathione. Future studies are needed to confirm that eating the recommended amount of dairy foods improves brain glutathione in aging. But what we do know and what you can share with your clients is that many older adults consume fewer dairy foods than recommended and could benefit from eating the recommended amounts to reap the benefits of the calcium, protein, vitamin D, potassium and other nutrients that  dairy foods contribute in the U.S. diet.