This Small Diet Change Can Have Major Brain-Boosting Benefits
- A study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that people who consumed more flavonoid-rich foods (around 7.5 cups of berries a month) were 80 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer’s than those who ate no berries.
- This is likely because anti-inflammatory properties of flavonoids may preserve brain health.
- Even adding small amounts of foods such as berries, apples, pears, and tea to your diet could boost your brain health.
You already know that adding a handful of blueberries to your postride oatmeal or slicing up an apple as an afternoon snack is good for your health. But it turns out, it’s also beneficial for your brain. Recent research has found that adding even small amounts of berries, apples, and pears, or having a cup of afternoon tea may help ward off Alzheimer’s disease.
The study, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, followed the flavonoid intake in 2,800 adults for 20 years to track how diet may be related to cognitive decline long-term. Researchers used dietary questionnaires filled out at medical exams about every four years. At the start of the study, all participants were free of Alzheimer’s and Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, and had an average age of 59.
After an average followup of 19 years, participants who consumed the highest amounts of anthocyanins (such as berries and red wine), flavonols (such as apples and tea), and polymers (such as apples and tea) were much less likely to develop Alzheimer’s relative to their counterparts who had low amounts or none of these nutrients in their diet, lead study author Paul Jacques, Sc.D., senior scientist and team leader of the Nutritional Epidemiology Team at the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University told Bicycling.
To break it down further:
- Those who consumed the highest amounts of anthocyanins were 80 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer’s.
- Those who consumed the highest amount of flavonols were 50 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer’s.
- Those who consumed the highest amount of polymers (such as apples and tea) were 46 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer’s.
“These findings, in combination with evidence from earlier studies of healthy dietary patterns, clearly show that risk of Alzheimer’s disease is strongly associated with diet, even if we do not have sufficient evidence to say it is a consequence of the dietary flavonoids,” Jacques said. “This is important, because there are currently no treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.”
While it’s significant to see that those with a higher dietary intake of flavonols also saw a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, it’s also important to remember that this is an observational study; research cannot establish if the association between flavonoids and Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias is causal.
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And though this research did not specifically address the ways flavonoids may affect Alzheimer’s risk, previous research has found that flavonoids have anti-inflammatory effects—and inflammation is an important component in the development of Alzheimer’s, Jacques explained. Other possible ways flavonoids might boost brain health are through lowering blood pressure, improving blood flow to the brain, and promoting formation of new neurons in the brain.
What’s more, the findings suggest that to see potential brain-protective benefits, it just takes a small change in diet. For example, there were relatively small differences in the intakes of flavonoid-filled foods among those with the highest—and lowest Alzheimer’s risk—and lowest flavonoid intake categories, Jacques said.
Those with the lowest anthocyanin intake consumed no berries on average, whereas those with the highest intake consumed around 7.5 cups of berries—blueberries and strawberries combined—per month. (One serving size of blueberries is one cup.) Those with the lowest flavonol and polymer intakes consumed roughly 1.5 apples per month and no tea, while those with the highest intakes consumed about six more apples per month and drank about 2.5 cups of tea per week.
So, just incorporating small amounts of foods such as berries, pears, apples, and tea into your meals on a daily or weekly basis may be beneficial when it comes to brain health (research shows that both black and green tea have high amounts of flavanoids). Plus eating fruits daily is important to a person’s overall health.
Additionally, incorporating these foods later in life will be beneficial. The risk of dementia starts to increase over age 70, and most study participants were in their 50s and 60s at the start of the study. Given the age of the participants in the study and the long follow-up time, the researchers were able to assess eating habits through midlife prior to the onset of dementia, even though diet prior to midlife wasn’t accounted for, Jacques explained.
“Therefore, our findings suggest that diet in midlife and at older ages matters with respect to Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias risk and they imply that diet in later life matters,” Jacques said.
Bottom line: while there is no known cure for Alzheimer’s, adding foods with flavonols, anthocyanins, and polymers to your diet at any age can help boost your overall health. Plus, researchers found that small changes to diet at any age can be beneficial.
“The best take-home message is that diet influences many aspect of healthy aging, including Alzheimer’s disease risk and no matter what age, there are many potential health benefits from making changes that result in a healthier diet, including higher flavonoid intake,” Jacques said.