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New Heights: Fueling Brain and Body With The U.S. Air Force

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

US Air Force flying in formation
Dec 20 2016

Everyone needs a sharp mind and 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 is 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 how exercise and nutrition technologies can help improve airmen’s cognitive function (e.g. attention and working memory) and physical capabilities (e.g. strength and endurance).

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 during long working days, monotonous work and taxing missions. (That’s something to which most people can relate!)

But, relying on those quick fixes during the workday can add up and end up negatively impacting your productivity and focus. And the same is true for air personnel. To address the needs of AFRL, the researchers at Abbott developed a unique nutritional supplement that is being used in the study to investigate its effects on participants’ cognition and physical performance. The study will measure if the combined nutrition and exercise regimens helped improve attention, focus, processing speed, fitness and endurance.

“The Air Force is really interested in health and human performance technologies,” explains Adam Strang, PhD, 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

What the Study Entails

The study kicked off in January 2016 and won’t conclude until 2017. Over a two-year period around 200 active duty personnel will participate in the study which is split into 12 week sessions. The participants drink two 8-ounce servings of the supplement (either active or placebo) every day, while also engaging in a five-day-per-week 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 nutritional supplement and exercise regimen impacts the airmen’s cognitive and physical performance.

The “all in one” nutritional drink was developed by Abbott scientists and contains a

blend of carbohydrates, protein and fat to support energy and muscle needs, DHA (an omega-3) and lutein (a carotenoid ) to support attention, focus, processing speed and working memory. It also includes HMB, a protein related compound which encourages muscles to utilize protein we eat more efficiently and other vital micronutrients known to help improve endurance and muscle strength.

“Giving air force personnel specific nutrients to support attention, focus, processing speed, and decision making is critical,” says Tapas Das, PhD, 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.”

US Airman servicing an airplane

How 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 “all in one” 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 the essential fatty acids. 


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, however, a group of more than 600 naturally occurring pigments that give fruits and veggies their yellow, orange and red colors, have powerful antioxidative properties. They help both reduce and prevent inflammation that has been shown to stall brain health. 2013 research published in the Journal of Aging Research even shows that levels of carotenoids in the body can predict cognitive health in the elderly. 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

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 help your body metabolize carbohydrate, protein and fat for healthy energy levels and brain function, B vitamins also help the body incorporate dietary protein into stronger, healthier muscles.

According to 2016 research in Gerontology, muscle health is tightly correlated to cognitive health, with stronger twins performing 18 percent better on memory and other cognitive tests than their weaker, genetically identical, counterparts. To get the array of B vitamins needed to support health, turn to whole grains, fruits and vegetables including broccoli, spinach, potatoes, legumes, salmon and lean pork.

While the study isn’t complete until 2017 the research is vital to understanding the impact of nutrition on overall brain health. The research will give us the scientific information we need to develop new innovative products and help everyday people who experience the similar stressors and challenges.

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