NEWS & RESEARCH

How Nutrition Fuels the Bodies, Brains of the U.S. Air Force

Nutrition Supports Performance and Brain Health in Air Force Personnel

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Abbott researchers are studying the effects of nutrition on airmen's performance. Here's how it can boost yours, too.

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DEC. 20, 2018    5 MIN. READ
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Everyone needs a sharp mind and a healthy body to perform their best. That's especially true of the men and women who serve in the United States Air Force (USAF).

That's why the Center for Nutrition, Learning, and Memory (CNLM) — a pioneering research partnership between Abbott and the University of Illinois — is collaborating on a multi-year study with the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) to examine the connection between nutrition and brain performance. They're interested in how nutrition affects the brain and in how exercise and nutrition can help improve airmen's cognitive function—attention, focus and decision-making abilities— as well as physical endurance. And while the study is focused on individuals serving in the armed forces, this nutrition research stands to benefit everyone.

'The Next Generation of Cognitive and Exercise Technologies'

In working with the AFRL, CNLM researchers found that U.S. Air Force personnel often rely on unhealthy options, such as sugar and caffeine, to keep themselves going while on the job. But no matter where you work, routinely relying on those quick fixes during the workday can end up negatively impacting your productivity, focus and overall health.

Researchers at Abbott developed a unique nutritional supplement to improve participants' cognition and physical performance. The study will measure the effects of combined nutrition and exercise regimens on attention, focus, processing speed, fitness and endurance.

"The Air Force is really interested in health and human performance technologies," explains Adam Strang, Ph.D., lead investigator with the Air Force Research Laboratory. "With this study, we are really looking at developing the next generation of cognitive and exercise technologies to help with airmen readiness."

Testing the Impact of Nutrition and Exercise

How the Study Will Work

The study kicked off in January 2016 and results will be available in 2019. Over the period, about 200 active-duty personnel will participate in the study, which is split into 12-week sessions. The participants will drink two 8-ounce servings of the supplement (either active or placebo) every day, while also engaging five days a week in an exercise program that involves mission-relevant resistance and cardiovascular exercise routines.

Researchers are using a comprehensive battery of laboratory tests to gather data on how the combination of the nutritional supplement and exercise regimen impacts the airmen's cognitive and physical performance.

The nutritional drink developed by Abbott scientists contains a blend of carbohydrates, protein and fat to support energy and muscle needs, and DHA (an omega-3) and lutein (a carotenoid) to support attention, focus, processing speed and working memory. It also includes HMB, a compound coveted by bodybuilders for its ability to support muscle health. HMB supplements also contain other vital micronutrients known to help improve muscle strength.

"Giving air force personnel specific nutrients to support attention, focus, processing speed and decision making is critical," says Tapas Das, Ph.D., a senior associate fellow at Abbott who designed the nutrition supplement. "They have to be very precise in spite of stress, which has been shown to cause issues with the brain's function and working memory."

Nutrition Can Improve Your Attention, Focus and Working Memory

While the study is ongoing, experts already know that many of the individual ingredients contained in Abbott's nutritional supplement are proven to impact cognition and improve brain health, Das says. Here's a look at three such ingredients, and how they can help you perform your best.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

These unsaturated fats are incredibly concentrated in the brain and play a major role in both memory and overall cognitive function — so much so that not getting enough omega-3 fatty acids through diet can result in neurocognitive dysfunction and an increased risk of dementia, according to Das. Fatty fish like salmon and tuna, as well as avocados, walnuts and olive oil, all contain these essential fatty acids.

Carotenoids

Oxidative stress, caused by the body's production of damaging free radicals, and inflammation are believed to be significant contributors to cognitive decline, Das says. Carotenoids can lead to some relief in this area.

A group of more than 600 naturally occurring pigments that give fruits and veggies their yellow, orange and red colors, carotenoids have powerful antioxidative properties. They can help both reduce and prevent inflammation that has been shown to impact brain health. According to the Journal of Aging Research, measuring levels of carotenoids in the body can help educate us on true cognitive health in elderly people.

To increase your carotenoid intake, focus on integrating more yellow, orange and red foods, such as bell peppers, tomatoes and sweet potatoes, into your diet.

Vitamins B, C, D and E

Adding to the connection between nutrition and brain development, these micronutrients play critical roles in maintaining healthy brain function, and deficiencies in them have been linked to brain shrinkage and the development of Alzheimer's disease, Das says. And while all of these will help your body metabolize carbohydrates, protein and fat for healthy energy levels and brain function, B vitamins can help the body turn dietary protein into stronger, healthier muscles.

According to research in Gerontology, muscle health is shown to be directly correlated with cognitive health. In this study of identical twins, the ones who were physically stronger performed 18% better on memory and other cognitive tests than their weaker siblings.

To get the array of B vitamins needed to support muscle health, turn to whole grains, fruits and vegetables, including broccoli, spinach, potatoes and legumes, as well as salmon and lean pork.

While results are being analyzed, this research is vital to understanding how nutrition affects the brain. The research provides the scientific information needed to develop innovative products that help people live their best lives. 

The STEM Women Scientists at Abbott

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More than ever, women are pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), and at Abbott, they are conducting groundbreaking research, pioneering innovations, making discoveries, developing breakthrough technologies, bringing products to market and changing lives. Not only that, they're changing the healthcare industry.

In honor of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we connected with two Abbott scientists, Barb Marriage, Ph.D., RD, who has conducted extensive global research in pediatric nutrition contributing to the development of nutrition therapies that help children with metabolic disorders get the nutrition they need; as well as Bridget Barrett-Reis, Ph.D., RD, who's vision, insight and direction have led to clinical trials and the introduction of innovative nutritional products for the NICU.

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