Since we were children, purveyors of folk wisdom have been telling us that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
For the most part, they’ve been right. In dogs, as in primates and humans, impaired learning and memory functions correlate with aging. It’s a sad but true fact that as we grow older our ability to solve problems, remember facts, and learn new skills deteriorates. Our brains are powerful and amazing, but over time they become, well, less so.
Some scientists believe that age-related cognitive dysfunction can be traced to the accumulation of a substance called amyloid-beta in the brain. Amyloid-beta is a noxious peptide that our bodies synthesize as a by-product of oxidation, the ever-occurring process through which our bodies metabolize inhaled oxygen into useful energy. As we age, amyloid-beta and other types of oxidative damage accumulate as plaque in our brain tissue. Many scientists believe that this gradual accumulation — think of rusting iron or a browning apple — is the primary pathology contributing to age-related diminished brain functionality, both in humans and in dogs.
Studies on dogs have shown not only that the extent of amyloid-beta deposition in their brains correlates highly with the severity of their cognitive dysfunction but also that such accumulation generally tends to increase with age. Thus, to develop treatments aimed at combatting age-related cognitive decline in both humans and dogs, scientists have recently begun to probe the extent to which a diet rich in antioxidants can be used to reduce the accumulation of oxidative pathology such as amyloid-beta in the brain.
The results have been extremely encouraging.
In one study, a group of aged beagles that were fed an antioxidant-rich diet for six months made significantly fewer errors on difficult oddity discrimination tests than did a control group of aged beagles.
The variable group was fed food enriched “with a broad spectrum of antioxidants and mitochondrial enzymatic cofactors” including “Vitamins E and C, a mixture of fruits and vegetables, [and] alpha-lipoic acid and L-carnitine.” After six months on the new diet, the dogs were subjected to problem solving tests to analyze the evolution of their cognitive abilities. The authors of the study were succinct and unequivocal in describing the positive results: “the antioxidant diet produced an improvement in the ability of old dogs to learn a complex task.”
In a more recent study, the results were even more exciting. There, dogs were evaluated and compared against a control group while being treated with an antioxidant-fortified diet over a 2.8 year period. The authors concluded that treatment with an antioxidant diet leads to numerous cognitive improvements, including improved results on spatial attention tasks, complex learning tasks, visual discrimination, and reversal learning tasks. Whoa.
So how can you put these findings to use with your own dog? The short answer is you can upgrade the functionality of your dog’s aging brain by supplementing his diet with antioxidants and mitochondrial enzymatic cofactors, just like the test subjects in the aforementioned studies.
By far the easiest and most effective way that this can be done is through supplementation. While some commercial dog foods claim to be spiked with antioxidants, the well-publicized dangers of most commercial dog foods far exceed the limited benefit of their antioxidant content. And, while a careful combination of fruits, vegetables, and oils could provide the optimal balance of antioxidants and mitochondrial cofactors, for most of us the much easier solution will be simply to fortify our dog’s existing diet with a supplement.
Antioxidant supplements for pets are far less popular than joint support supplements or standard multivitamins, but you should nevertheless have little trouble finding one at your local pet store or e-tailer. Ideally, look for a product that presents a diverse mixture of the most powerful antioxidants (Vitamin C, Vitamin E, beta carotene, and selenium) as well as mitochondrial cofactors, such as alpha-lipoic acid, l-carnitine, and ascorbic acid.
It should be noted that at least one study suggests that mitochondrial cofactor enrichment alone (not in combination with antioxidant enrichment) does not improve cognitive function. So, when choosing your brain-boosting formula, opt for one with both antioxidants and mitochondrial cofactors.
That’s it for today. I hope you all have a great weekend.
– Coach Dan