Research into how Alzheimer’s disease develops shows that little everyday habits produce big results in keeping your brain healthy. First and foremost of those habits are the foods you eat.
If you’re a frequent reader here, you’ve heard me preach about the brain-boosting benefits of potent little antioxidants called flavonoids, which are found in fruits, vegetables, chocolate, tea and wine.
Not to sound like a broken record, but now there’s even more scientific evidence that certain flavonoid-rich foods can significantly reduce your risk of losing your memory to Alzheimer’s and other types of dementias.
Let’s take a look at the latest findings…
What are Flavonoids Anyway?
“Bioactive pigments” is a term scientists use to describe natural chemicals in food that give many fruits and vegetables their vivid red, blue, green and orange colors. These pigments are also known as flavonoids.
Scientists have identified more than 6,000 flavonoids in foods so far, and they still haven’t figured out everything these nutrients do within the human body. But what they have found is that flavonoids’ molecular structure gives them powerful antioxidant properties that protect cells against damage by free radicals.1
Scientists discovered the antioxidant powers of flavonoids in 1976, and since then, they’ve performed more than 23,000 studies examining their effects on health.
Many of these studies confirm that when you consume foods rich in flavonoids, they help reduce chronic inflammation throughout your body and your brain – and that’s good news for your memory.
Double the Protection Against Memory Loss
In a study published recently in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers determined that people who ate the smallest amounts of flavonoid-rich foods were two to four times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias compared with people whose intake was higher.2
While this is just one of many studies performed over the years that link nutrition and dementia, this one grabbed my attention specifically because it examined the link over 20 years.
The study, performed by researchers at Tufts University, analyzed health data collected on 2,800 people aged 50 and older. Interestingly, these people were the children of the original people in the well-known Framingham Heart Study – a study begun in 1948 that collected lifestyle information from more than 5,000 people living in Framingham, Massachusetts.
The original Framingham study focused on how diet, exercise and other lifestyle factors affected the risk of heart disease. But more recently, researchers have been using the Framingham family data to tease out how lifestyle is related to a wider range of health outcomes.
To increase the chances of accuracy in the participants’ self-reported questionnaires, the researchers excluded any data from the years leading up to a dementia diagnosis. Researchers assumed – and rightly so – that as cognitive status declines, dietary behavior changes and thus the food questionnaires may be inaccurate.
Now, there are limitations to any study that includes self-reporting, but I believe there is still merit to the findings at Tufts.3
The Three Most Powerful Brain-Boosting Flavonoids
After examining six different flavonoids, the researchers found three that showed the most powerful results in preserving memory function.
These are found in apples, pears, teas, and many vegetables. Researchers found those people with a low intake of flavonols faced twice the risk of developing dementia.
The study’s authors gave a big shout out to tea, especially green tea, and berries as being your best sources of important brain-saving flavonoids.
What’s more, the study shows that it’s never too late to make positive dietary changes in the name of brain health.
Small Amounts Make a Big Difference
“Our study gives us a picture of how diet over time might be related to a person’s cognitive decline,” said Dr. Paul Jacques, senior author and nutritional epidemiologist at the USDA HNRCA.
“The risk of dementia really starts to increase over age 70, and the take home message is, when you are approaching 50 or just beyond, you should start thinking about a healthier diet if you haven’t already.”
“When we look at the study results, we see that the people who may benefit the most from consuming more flavonoids are people at the lowest levels of intake, and it doesn’t take much to improve levels,” said author EsraShishtar, of the Tufts University Nutritional Epidemiology Program.
“A cup of tea a day or some berries two or three times a week would be adequate.”
In addition, if you have a high genetic risk of Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, increasing your flavonoid consumption is proving to be especially important.
48 Percent Reduced Alzheimer’s Risk
In another study, published in in the journal Neurology, research showed that consuming flavonoids might help fight the development of Alzheimer’s disease.4
Of the 921 study participants, those who consumed the most flavonoids had a 48 percent lower chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease – that’s remarkable protection.
In a third study at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, researchers found that older women who ate more flavonoids found in blueberries and strawberries kept their brains effectively two to three years younger than women who didn’t eat these fruits.5
Flavonoids are also helping people avoid other neurological diseases like Parkinson’s disease.
A study at Harvard revealed that consuming plenty of the flavonoids found in berries, tea, apples and red wine lowered the risk of Parkinson’s by about 40 percent.6
You Can’t Go Wrong by Eating Flavonoids
Getting some of these flavonoid-rich foods into your diet every day is one of the best long-term dietary investments you can make for your brain health.
What’s more, the research is clear that small increases in these dietary items can yield big results. Just a few additional servings of vegetables and fruit can have a significant impact on reducing your risk of disease. A cup of tea, a handful of berries, some beans, and a spinach salad – even just once a week – are all good first steps.
I encourage you to aim for five colors a day – otherwise known as eating the rainbow.
And remember: a well-balanced diet is just one natural weapon in your brain health toolbox. Don’t leave out the importance of stress management, sleep, and exercise, too!
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, nqaa079, https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/nqaa079
- Dietary flavanols and risk of Alzheimer dementia
Thomas M. Holland, Puja Agarwal, Yamin Wang, Sue E. Leurgans, David A. Bennett, Sarah L. Booth, Martha Clare Morris Neurology Apr 2020, 94 (16) e1749-e1756; DOI: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000008981