Do Fruits and Vegetables Help Keep Your Brain Young?

Eating ample servings of fruit and vegetables every day is proven strategy for long-term health, one that may even help us live longer, according to large populations studies that have uncovered a direct connection between the numbers of daily servings consumed and the risk of mortality in various groups of people. In the search for understanding how fruit and vegetables work to protect health, research has zeroed in on natural compounds found in fruit and vegetables called “flavonoids.” Flavonoids are phytonutrients (“phyto” means “plant”) that exert protective effects on the heart and cardiovascular systems.

The health benefits of generous fruit and vegetable intakes extend to preserving cognitive function in the elderly, as shown in a prospective population study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology. Epidemiological research studies the incidence of diseases in population groups to identify possible causes or protective factors. The PAQUID study of 1640 subjects aged 65 and older looked at the intake of flavonoids in relation to cognitive function and decline. Standardized tests of cognitive function were utilized in the investigation. The subjects were divided into quartiles (fourths) based on the amount of flavonoids consumed daily from food, chiefly fruits and vegetables, over a 10-year period. Subjects with the lowest flavonoid intake lost twice as many points on the Mini-Mental State Examination. Those in the top two quartiles “performed significantly better over time than did subjects in the lowest quartile,” according to the report.

How flavonoids work in the body may help explain why eating multiple daily servings of fruit and vegetables is so good for us. “Flavonoids are powerful antioxidant molecules,” the report states, a fact established in other research papers. Antioxidants helps neutralize byproducts of metabolism called “free radicals” that can damage cells if they get out of control. The body has enzyme systems for dealing with free radicals, but these can slow down as we age, leaving us more vulnerable to free radical damage.

When we were kids, Mom told us to eat our vegetables; it’s now our responsibility to give our loved ones that same advice as they grow older. Young or old, however, it can be a real challenge to keep up with the standard recommendation to eat five or more servings of fruit and vegetables every day without fail. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), estimates the average number of daily servings eaten by Americans at only 1.6 for veggies and 1.1 for fruit. Taking a dietary supplement that includes concentrates of fruit and vegetables is one way consumers are helping meet the shortfall. The demand for “green food” supplements with organic vegetable and fruits continues to increase as consumers follow this emerging lifestyle trend.

Letenneur L, et al. Flavonoid intake and cognitive decline over a 10-year period. Am J Epidemiol 2007;165(12):1364-71.