Food is Luis de Haro’s passion. The 69-year-old Boston resident teaches Spanish cooking classes in Cambridge and generally eats healthy foods. But he admits it’s his voracious sweet tooth – “my love for ice cream, that’s what kills me” — and his chef duties that are his downfall, piling 200-plus pounds on his 5-foot, 9-inch frame.
“When you are involved with food it’s a problem,” de Haro said. “You have to taste everything.”
As he ages, de Haro is also concerned about staying sharp mentally so he can keep teaching. Which is why he was among the first to enroll in a new trial by Tufts University researchers to examine whether a specially-designed, daily nutritious shake for adults over 55 can help stave off memory loss and control weight.
After years of studying the way Americans eat, and the myriad health problems that stem from crummy diets, Susan Roberts, the lead researcher, said it’s time to be pragmatic.
“We can be purists and say everyone has to eat a perfect diet, but the reality is, for most people’s lives, it’s not going to work for them,” said Roberts, senior scientist at Tufts’ USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging.
To be clear, Roberts encourages people to eat healthy, but realizes that gets harder with age because calorie needs decline, especially for older adults.
“Healthy diets are important,” Roberts said. “But let’s have a plan B, too.”
The study, which is funded by the National Institutes of Health, will run for one year, with plans to expand for four more years if data suggest the approach slows cognitive decline and that participants can stick with the program.
Participants are asked to consume one of the shakes daily and record which flavor they chose – chocolate/vanilla, amaretto, or orange cream – and how they prepared it. The product, which is about 180 calories, comes frozen and when thawed is the consistency of pudding. It can be consumed as is or mixed with fluid, such as almond milk, to create a shake.
To be eligible, participants must be between 55 and 85 years old and be overweight or obese (a body mass index of 27-39.9, which translates to roughly 185 pounds to 270 pounds for a person de Haro’s height, which is 5 feet, 9 inches.) Participants also must not have serious memory problems, or trouble with attention or thinking, or have diabetes.
The study will separate participants into four groups: one that receives the shake supplement and a weight loss program, one that just receives the weight loss program, a third that receives the shake supplement but no weight loss intervention, and a fourth that receives a placebo supplement that looks and tastes similar to the study product, but does not contain the same nutrients. (Participants who do not receive the weight loss program during the trial are eligible for it afterward.)
Every few months, the participants are expected to undergo standard memory tests, such as one that measures how many animals they can remember a minute after seeing pictures of them. Researchers will also be examining blood flow in each participant’s brain using an imaging technique known as near-infrared spectroscopy, which provides an indirect measure of brain activity.
“There is not going to be any magic bullet [to slow memory loss], but an overall approach with weight loss, combined with substances that other studies have shown have some results, could have relevance for older people,” said Dr. Robert Russell, a professor emeritus of nutrition at Tufts, who is working on behalf of federal regulators to monitor safety and efficacy in the trial.
The shake’s specific ingredients are confidential to protect the integrity of the trial. Roberts said it includes substances commonly found in “an extremely healthy diet,” and are thought to support brain health, including fruits and vegetables, which contain substances known as flavonoids, as well as healthy fat sources and lean proteins. Flavonoids are a type of antioxidant and are believed to protect against cell damage.
Other energy drinks popularly marketed for older adults include essential nutrients, but not in high enough volume to potentially slow memory loss, or may not include ones believed to be important specifically for brain health, Roberts said.
Increasingly, research suggests excessive weight, especially as people age, may be associated with cognitive decline. And research into specific substances, such as flavonoids, which are found in fruits, certain teas, chocolate, and other foods, suggests they also may be beneficial for brain health. But scientists are still untangling which flavonoids, and in what amounts, might be most effective.
“There are five thousand flavonoids identified in our food supply ... so it’s very, very complex,” said John Erdman, professor emeritus in food science and human nutrition at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, who is not involved in the study.
A 2020 analysis by British researchers of 17 studies involving polyphenols, a substance found in plants that includes flavonoids, found “support for an association between polyphenol consumption and cognitive benefits,” but concluded the link “is tentative, and by no means definitive.” The authors said more research is needed.
Scientists think flavonoids may help protect against inflammation and oxidative damage to cells in the brain, which may decrease the risk for cognitive decline.
Another complicating factor in trying to pinpoint specific nutrients and their effects on the brain, Erdman said, is all the other foods study participants may or may not be eating.
“People who consume fruits and vegetables and food high in [flavonoids] are not consuming as many high saturated fats ... and their risk of high blood pressure and diabetes are lower, so it could be something they are not doing,” he said.
For now, de Haro, one of the study participants, said one thing he is not doing is snacking as much at night because the daily shake supplement, which he prefers in its pudding form, acts like an after-dinner dessert and fills him up.
“It kills the hunger for the rest of the evening,” he said.
Roberts, the study’s lead author, put it this way: “This is designed to have people who don’t have a perfect diet get perfect nutrition,” she said. “If someone gets to 65 today, you can expect to live another 20 years, and you don’t want to live that 20 years with dementia.”
For more information about the study, call 1-800-738-7555 or visit https://linktr.ee/bbhealth