Dr. Bowman’s research on diet and brain shrinkage covered widely in media

Gene Bowman, MDOur brains are what we eat - in a way.

That was the finding from research conducted by Gene Bowman, ND, MPH, Assistant Professor in the Department of Neurology. And the results from the interesting and innovative study, published Dec. 28 in Neurology, have received a deluge of national and international media coverage.

The New York Times, the BBC, Time magazineUSA Today, the online Huffington Post, The Osgood File CBS news radio, OPB Think Out Loud, The Oregonian, and hundreds of other outlets have covered the story.

“I’m standing on the shoulders of giants in the field,” said Dr. Bowman, crediting the interdisciplinary nature of his team as its inherent strength.

Results from the Bowman study show that elderly people with diets high in vitamins B, C, D, and E and in omega 3 fatty acids are less likely to have the brain shrinkage and other abnormalities associated with an increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease than people whose diets aren’t high in those nutrients.

People taking in the good nutrients also had higher scores on mental thinking tests than those with diets low in the good nutrients.

“The study found that our bad eating habits catch up to us in other ways as well,” said Dr. Bowman. “We learned that people with diets high in a particular trans fat — often found in fast, fried, frozen and processed foods and in baked goods — had smaller brains and worse cognitive performance, including memory, attention, language and processing speed.”

The team’s research generated huge interest not only for its basic findings but also for how the investigation was conducted. While previous studies relied on the study participants to recall foods eaten over the last year, Dr. Bowman’s study took a different approach: measuring the nutrients in study participants’ blood as an objective reflection of dietary intake. The investigators then applied a data driven approach to identify nutrient combinations that may have synergistic effects on brain function and structure. 

Participants in the study came from The Oregon Brain Aging Study (OBAS) initiated in 1989 by Jeffrey Kaye, MD, Professor, Department of Neurology.  The nutrition study subjects had an average age of 87 and all were free of dementia.

“We’re beginning to understand how different nutritional patterns relate to different cognitive phenotypes, so not only does this help us understand the role of diet in brain aging, but also how we might individualize nutritional therapy to enhance brain function as we age,” said Dr. Bowman.

These findings, according to Dr. Bowman, would be more compelling if the patterns could also predict cognitive decline and brain atrophy over time. “Right now we have a new model with certain methodological and conceptual strengths in terms of capturing dietary exposure,” he said. “But our work needs to be confirmed and advanced in certain ways.”

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health - National Institute on Aging and National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, Portland VA Medical Center, and OCTRI.

Dr. Bowman is part of OHSU’s Layton Aging & Alzheimer’s Disease Center, which is part of the OHSU Brain Institute. OHSU co-authors in the study included Joseph Quinn, MD, Associate Professor, Department of Neurology, and Jackilen Shannon, PhD, RD, MPH, Associate Professor, Department of Public Health and Preventive Medicine.