It seems like we’ve all been waiting a long time for definitive evidence that there’s something we can do – diet, exercise, crossword puzzles, something! – to help stave off the scourge of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Over the years here at the AgingOptions blog, we’ve encountered hundreds of articles on the topic, most of which seem to end with the words, “More research is needed.”
We hesitate to suggest that one single study has ended the debate. However, in this just-published article from HealthDay, reporter Carla Murez describes a new, comprehensive research project that tracked more than 7,000 adults for a minimum of 16 years – and the results were extremely encouraging. It’s one of the most compelling pieces of evidence yet that, when it comes to brain health, you are what you eat.
Good for the Body and Good for the Brain
“A diet rich in the antioxidants that leafy, green vegetables and colorful fruit deliver is good for your body,” Murez writes, “and now new research shows it also protects your brain.”
The study discovered that people whose blood contained higher amounts of three vital antioxidants were less likely to develop dementia than those with lower levels of the same antioxidants. Dr. Luigi Ferrucci of the U.S. National Institute on Aging (NIA) sums it up: “The takeaway is that a healthy diet rich in antioxidants from dark leafy greens and orange-pigmented fruits with or without antioxidant supplements may reduce the risk of developing dementia.”
Doctors have known for a while that the way to prove the connection between antioxidants and brain health is with a long-term, randomized clinical trial. Such a trial can observe whether fewer people who take a carefully controlled amount of antioxidant supplements develop dementia over time. This new research seems to offer a big step in that direction.
Huge Study Measures Key Antioxidants Over Many Years
The study’s findings were published online in the journal Neurology on May 4th. Murez explains, “For this new research, study author May Beydoun of the NIA in Baltimore, along with her colleagues, studied nearly 7,300 people, aged 45 to 90, who had a physical exam, an interview and a blood test for antioxidant levels. The individuals were divided into three groups, depending on the level of antioxidants in their blood, and followed for an average of 16 years and as many as 26 years.”
The two vital antioxidants in the blood that seem to prevent the development of dementia are lutein and zeaxanthin, which are found in green leafy vegetables: kale, spinach, broccoli, and peas, for example. A third antioxidant, beta-cryptoxanthin, reduced the risk of dementia by 14 percent with every standard deviation increase (a measure of how dispersed the data is in relation to the average). Beta-cryptoxanthin is found in orange-colored fruits, such as oranges, papaya, tangerines, and persimmons.
Antioxidants Protect Brain Cells
The researchers theorize that antioxidants help to guard certain cells of the body from oxidative stress damage, including and most notably brain cells. Other factors can affect the amount of antioxidants we have easy access t0 in our daily diet—including education, income, and physical activity—and the study only took one blood sample, so does not reflect the fluctuations of antioxidant levels over a lifetime.
Ferrucci explains, “It is important to keep in mind that experts do not yet know how much antioxidants we need to consume each day through our diet and supplements for a healthy brain. Determining ways to prevent the development of dementia is an important public health challenge, but the results of previous studies have been mixed.”
He adds, “Population studies that follow healthy people over many years for the development of dementia enable us to look for potential risk factors and also protective factors, such as dietary and lifestyle choices.”
Seven Steps to a Healthier Brain
According to Yuko Hara, director of Aging and Alzheimer’s Prevention at the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation, this was a unique study. Most studies of this kind rely on patients to recall what foods they’ve eaten, but memory can be notoriously unreliable. This study utilized blood markers, a much more reliable source of data.
But more importantly, Hara believes that the study revealed that nutrition is one of many steps people can take to improve their brain health on a holistic level. Hara’s organization encourages even steps for brain health, which we’ve summarized here:
- Good nutrition, with an emphasis on the Mediterranean diet.
- Optimum sleep, about seven to eight hours each night.
- Moderate-intensity exercise, about 150 minutes per week.
- Easing stress.
- Being social.
- Continuing to learn.
- Managing chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, which are associated with dementia risk.
On this last step, Hara explains, “These are conditions that if you leave it untreated you are also harming your brain health and potentially [increasing] Alzheimer’s risk, as well as overall dementia risk. If you have those conditions, you really want to keep them under control with lifestyle interventions or, if not enough with lifestyle interventions, most likely your doctor will prescribe you medications so that your blood pressure and glucose levels will be managed well. That’s what we recommend.”
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(originally reported at https://consumer.healthday.com)