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"Our findings with turmeric are consistent with these observations, insofar as they appear to influence cognitive function where there is disordered energy metabolism and insulin resistance," researcher Mark Wahlqvist said.
Turmeric root has been used as a spice and medicine for thousands of years and is still an important component in traditional Asian cooking and medicinal systems. It is a critical component of curry powders, giving them their yellow color.
That yellow color itself comes from a trio of chemicals known as "curcuminoids," the most commonly known being curcumin. In recent years, much research has focused on the antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and other health-promoting benefits of curcumin.
Six-hour memory boost
The new study involved testing the working memories of adults over the age of 60 who had recently been diagnosed with pre-diabetes -- which is known to be associated with memory loss -- but who were not receiving treatment. Participants were fed a breakfast of white bread, supplemented with either 1 gram of turmeric or a placebo. Their memories were tested both before the meal and after it.
"We found that this modest addition to breakfast improved working memory over six hours in older people with pre-diabetes," Wahlqvist said.
As the world's population ages, health experts believe that the prevalence of conditions linked to memory loss will rise, including diabetes and dementia. The researchers suggested that early intervention, including with turmeric, might lessen the prevalence of those conditions and blunt their effects in those who develop them.
"Working memory is widely thought to be one of the most important mental faculties, critical for cognitive abilities such as planning, problem solving and reasoning," Wahlqvist said. "Assessment of working memory is simple and convenient, but it is also very useful in the appraisal of cognition and in predicting future impairment and dementia."
The power of curcumin
Research has also linked turmeric and curcumin more directly to reduced dementia risk. For example, a 2009 study conducted by researchers from Duke University found that curcumin caused changes in the brain counteracting some of the effects of Alzheimer's disease. The chemical specifically targeted the amyloid plaques believed to be one of the main causes of brain damage (and therefore symptoms).
"There is very solid evidence that curcumin binds to plaques, and basic research on animals engineered to produce human amyloid plaques has shown benefits," researcher Murali Doraiswamy said. "You can modify a mouse so that at about 12 months its brain is riddled with plaques. If you feed this rat a curcumin-rich diet, it dissolves these plaques. The same diet prevented younger mice from forming new plaques."
"If you have a good diet and take plenty of exercise, eating curry regularly could help prevent dementia," Doraiswamy said.
Diet and exercise are still the two best ways to prevent the disease, Doraiswamy emphasized.
Research has shown a wide variety of other benefits from turmeric and curcumin, including preventing cancer and improving cancer prognosis, arthritis relief, improved heart health and even reductions in body fat.
A series of 2013 studies conducted by researchers from the University of Tsukuba in Japan found that curcumin improved two measures of cardiovascular health as much as aerobic exercise did, while the two together provided the greatest benefit.
Studies have shown that curcumin is best absorbed from the turmeric root (or powder) itself, rather than from supplements.