Population studies show that India has a lower rate of memory disorders and dementia that the United States and most of the Western world. Medical studies show that people who consume more curcumin — the substance that makes Indian curry dishes their yellow hue — score better on memory tests.
Are these two facts just a coincidence?
Not likely, says Dr. Gary Small, director of geriatric psychiatry at UCLA’s Longevity Center. Small, author of The Mind Health Report newsletter conducted a study to examine a possible cause and effect.
“What we found was that if you eat Indian food once a week, you’ll do better” on memory tests, Small tells Newsmax Health. “It may be something about cooking it that makes it more bioavailable.”
Curcumin is extracted from the spice turmeric, but only 5 percent of turmeric is curcumin.
“You would have to eat a lot of powdered turmeric root to get some benefit,” Small notes.
The research from Small’s study, published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry in January, examined the effects of curcumin supplements on people with dementia, along with effects on the plaques and tangles found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s.
The study compared different products. Curcumin is found in supplements produced by GNC, Meriva, and Theracumin, which is manufactured in Japan.
“We used Theracumin,” Small explains. “I didn’t see the same level of activity in the other products.
“We suspected that curcumin had an impact on plaques and tangles in the brain. It has anti-inflammatory effects, and as we age the brain has a higher rate of inflammation.”
Some of the anti-inflammatory anti-plaque activity was noted in this first study.
The study involved 40 adults between 50 and 90 years old who had mild memory loss. They received either a placebo or 90 milligrams of curcumin supplements twice daily.
Results showed that people who took curcumin had significant improvement in memory, and PET scans showed less amyloid protein and tau tangles in the amygdala and hypothalamus, the regions of the brain that control memory and emotional functions.
Patients in this study, including both those who took placebos and those who got 90 mg twice daily of Theracumin, experienced only mild side effects like abdominal pain and nausea. Larger doses of turmeric supplements can cause diarrhea, increased bleeding, increased liver function tests, and low blood pressure.
Depression wasn’t a primary outcome of this study, but Small plans to examine the connections between curcumin and mood that in a future study.
“There is an overlap between mood symptoms and memory,” he explained. “We’ll evaluate mood by using standard questionnaires that have been vetted to give degrees of depression.”
Future research will also include more PET scans, an expensive but effective way of measuring the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects of curcumin. A larger sample will also help to determine if the benefits apply to different genetic groups with a higher risk for Alzheimer’s disease, to older groups of people, and to those who have more significant cognitive problems.
So, is it worth it to eat curry every week? Or, are supplements the way to go?
If you like curry, it can’t hurt, Small says.
“Eating curry might be helpful,” he adds. “It is becoming more compelling in its benefits.”
Small notes that he is a consultant for Theracumin, and as a result he doesn’t make recommendations on supplement use. But he found this supplement to be most effective in his research.
He adds that funds for his study were raised through donations from foundations. Before taking any supplement, Small also recommends consulting your doctor.
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