We already know that a plant-based diet is associated with cardiovascular health, lowered risk of chronic illness and inflammation, and longevity. Now, thanks to a new study published in the journal Molecular Nutrition and Food Research, we know that a diet rich in specific plant products also reduces the risk of cognitive impairment and dementia in the elderly.
The research was performed by the Biomarkers and Nutritional Food Metabolomics Research Group of the Faculty of Pharmacy and Food Sciences of the University of Barcelona (UB) and the CIBER on Frailty and Healthy Aging (CIBERFES). In their findings, the study’s authors report that there is a protective association between the metabolites derived from polyphenol-rich foods (such as apples, green tea, blueberries, oranges, and pomegranates), cocoa, coffee, mushrooms, and red wine and cognitive impairment in the elderly. The research was carried out over 12 years with the participation of 842 people aged over 65 in the Bordeaux and Dijon regions of France.
“A higher intake of fruits, vegetables, and plant-based foods provides polyphenols and other bioactive compounds that could help reduce the risk of cognitive decline due to aging,” says the study’s lead researcher, Cristina Andrés-Lacueva, professor at the Faculty of Pharmacy and Food Sciences and head of the Biomarkers and Nutritional Metabolomics of Food Research Group of the UB.
While the association between eating plant-based foods for brain health and cognitive functioning is not necessarily new, this study is considered a more reliable means of measurement, so the findings are significant. “This study used metabolomics as a measurement tool, which is unique among research involving cognitive decline,” explains health coach and personal trainer Aimee Nicotera, MS, RD. “So rather than relying on food diaries or other [less scientific] means of quantifying nutritional intake, small molecule metabolic products from the blood serum were actually identified as markers and subsequently measured.”
Nicotera goes on to note that the study included a large sample size and was designed using two nested case-controlled sample sets. “This means instead of just following a group of people and collecting data, researchers have healthy controls for each case. This type of design is considered valid and efficient for diagnostic studies.”
That said, Nicotera notes that while metabolites of coffee were looked at, excessive amounts of caffeine were not examined. “As we apply the science, we should be cautious about going to extremes. In addition, while alcohol metabolites were associated with less cognitive decline, excess alcohol intake is associated with a higher incidence of cognitive decline,” she says. It’s also important to keep in mind, according to Nicotera, that stress, environmental factors, genetics, and presence of other diseases may contribute to cognitive decline as well. “While consuming more of the suggested healthy components and less of the unhealthy reported components may benefit, they don’t guarantee total prevention of cognitive decline,” she says.
But what in particular is special about the specific plant-based foods for brain health that the study singled out? Let’s take a closer look.
5 best plant-based foods for brain health as you age, according to new research
“Cocoa provides antioxidants that counteract cellular damage,” says nutrition expert Jamie Feit, MS, RD, an expert at Testing.com. Note, however, that the study looked at cocoa—not chocolate. “Chocolate comes with extra sugar and extra calories—opt for pure cacao and add it to morning oats or a smoothie or whip it with avocado and eat as a ‘mousse,’” recommends Nicotera.
“Coffee is known to increase memory and decrease risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease,” says Feit. “This was evidenced and explained well in a study at Harvard.” Nicotera cautions, however, that the recommendation for coffee intake is three to five cups a day with a maximum of 400 mg of caffeine. One eight-ounce cup of coffee offers approximately 100 mg of caffeine.
“Mushrooms are known to decrease inflammation and to increase vitamin D, both of which help strengthen the immune system,” says Feit. “It’s best to consume a variety of mushrooms as each type has different protective properties.”
4. Red Wine
Malbec, Petite Sirah, St. Laurent, and Pinot Noir have the highest resveratrol content, according to Nicotera. “The recommended amount of wine is one glass per day for women and two glasses per day for men. This recommendation is based on the notion that, while wine does offer some health benefits, in excess, it can be detrimental. The suggested intake of supplemental resveratrol is debated, especially as bioavailability is questionable, and cannot be directly equated to glasses of wine.”
5. Polyphenol-Rich Foods
Polyphenols are naturally occurring compounds found in plants. They are high in antioxidants and provide a variety of health benefits. “Research points to the recommendation of consuming more than 650 mg per day of polyphenol-rich foods. For example, 1000 mg of polyphenols per day is equivalent to 12 cups of cauliflower, a cup and a half of blueberries, two and a quarter cups of strawberries, or five and a half cups of broccoli,” says Nicotera.
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