New research shows that daily servings of leafy greens may improve brain health
A recent study 1 in Neurology – a journal published by the American Academy of Neurology — found that healthy seniors who had daily helpings of leafy green vegetables such as spinach, kale and collard greens had a slower rate of cognitive decline, scoring better on memory and thinking skill tests, compared to those who tended to eat little or no greens.
The study suggests that after five years, people who regularly consume leafy greens enjoyed a mental edge that was the equivalent of 11 years in age. Over five years, the pattern of mental aging differed markedly in the two test groups. Study participants who ate an average of 1.3 servings of leafy greens a day experienced test scores that were 50% better than those of participants whose daily consumption was near-zero. These differences were evident even after the researchers accounted for other factors that are known to affect mental aging such as age, gender, education, exercise, smoking and consumption of alcohol.
For example, let’s say you and a friend are the same age, went to the same college together, walk together every week, don’t smoke and occasionally sip a glass of wine together. You have a plate of healthy fresh green salad each day and your friend rarely eats salad greens; this research suggests your memory and thinking skills are likely to be stronger than your friend’s. Research also predicts that over the next five years, if all these habits continue, your friend’s memory and cognitive ability will decline twice as fast as yours. By the time you’re both 80, a battery of exercises that test several types of memory, as well as the speed and flexibility of your thinking, may show that your mental age is typical of a 75-year-old’s. Meanwhile, your friend’s performance on the same cognitive tests may look more like that of an 86-year-old.
These are fairly compelling statistics for eating at least one leafy green salad a day, if not two! Consider eating a salad as a luncheon entrée; have another small salad with your dinner and maybe some sautéed spinach.
Senior Nutrition Tips for Brain Health
A balanced diet that includes lots of greens and vegetables has always been linked to heart health and other nutritional well-being, but now there is increasing evidence that such a diet is also good for brain health. Dr. Lon Schneider, a specialist in dementia at USC’s Keck School of Medicine, says that this new study offers important insights into which nutrients in the Mediterranean diet help support health in aging. While dementia is a complex illness, and it’s onset and severity are caused by many things, clearly diet matters. There are many tips for brain health but diet has become increasingly important and something we have large control over.
One of the authors of the recent neurologic research, Martha Morris, who studies nutrition and brain health at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, was amazed that eating leafy greens could make such a difference in cognitive decline. This research “tells us that this single food group contains so many nutrients it could be brain-protective.”
Morris and her colleagues identified a small cluster of specific nutrients in leafy greens that appear to offer anti-aging brain benefits. Leafy vegetables like kale, spinach and lettuce, are generally rich in vitamin E, folic acid, vitamin K1, lutein and beta-carotene, and research has suggested that some, or all,l of these nutrients may play a role in protecting the brain against inflammation and neuronal damage as well as prevent the accumulation of toxic proteins such as beta-amyloid. Morris explains that with this research, scientists can only establish an association — not necessarily causation — between a healthy diet of greens and a mind that stays sharp, but there is in fact convincing evidence that at least one salad a day helps keep the doctor away.
Foods to Improve Brain Health
A late-life conversion to kale salads and spinach shakes may not keep dementia at bay, but it could help, offering some immediate and especially long-term benefits. Other studies3 have also indicated that a diet with a high consumption of vegetables – leafy greens and cruciferous veggies (such as broccoli and cauliflower) can make a difference. You can eat many different foods to improve brain health, so here is a short grocery list of produce for inspiration:
- Lettuce – romaine, red leaf, arugula, butter lettuce
- Spinach, kale
- Collard greens, chard
- Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage
- Asparagus, avocado
- Carrots, celery, cucumber
Today, most grocery markets make it easy to eat lots of greens. They are conveniently packaged in cellophane bags in the produce department; they are usually pre-washed and often even come with a pre-made salad dressing packet. Greens are mixed together for variety (kale & spinach; leafy salad greens, chopped salad, coleslaw) and can make for an instant plate of savory salad, so there is no excuse for not incorporating more greens into your diet!