Not Getting Enough of This in Your Diet Could Lead to Memory Loss, Study Finds

Not Getting Enough of This in Your Diet Could Lead to Memory Loss, Study Finds

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  • A flavanol-rich diet may help older adults avoid age-related memory loss, new research shows.

  • Flavanols are a type of flavonoid and are important for reducing inflammation.

  • Nutrition experts explain the findings.

There are many things we can do to keep our brains sharp as we age. From playing brain games to getting enough sleep, research shows that there are a variety of lifestyle changes that affect brain health. Now, a new study finds that eating a diet high in flavanols can lower the risk of age-related memory loss.

Studies have previously shown that up to 40% of adults 65 and older will experience some level of age-related memory loss. Fortunately, new research shows that some brain-boosting diet choices can help lower your risk for cognitive decline as you age.

A study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences looked specifically at how flavanol (a type of flavonoid that may help reduce inflammation) intake impacted age-related memory decline in older adults. Or rather, researchers looked at how a diet low in flavanols could drive age-related memory loss.

More than 3,500 healthy older adults, who were on average 71 years old, were randomly assigned to receive a daily flavanol supplement or placebo pill for three years. The active supplement contained 500 mg of flavanols, including 80 mg of epicatechins, an amount that adults are advised to get from food. All participants also completed a survey at the beginning of the study that assessed their quality of diet, including foods known to be high in flavanols.

Participants then performed a series of activities to assess short-term memory. These tests were repeated after the first, second, and third years. More than a third of participants supplied urine samples that allowed researchers to more precisely determine if flavanol levels corresponded to performance on the cognitive tests. The urine test also checked that participants were sticking to their assigned regimen.

Memory scores improved only slightly for the entire group taking the daily flavanol supplement, most of whom were already eating a healthy diet full of flavanols. But, participants who ate a poorer diet and had lower levels of flavanols to begin with saw memory scores increase after taking flavanol supplements by an average of 10.5% compared to the placebo group and 16% compared to their memory at the beginning of the study.

“The improvement among study participants with low-flavanol diets was substantial and raises the possibility of using flavanol-rich diets or supplements to improve cognitive function in older adults,” Adam M. Brickman, Ph.D., professor of neuropsychology at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and co-leader of the study, said in a press release.

What are flavanols, exactly?

Flavanols are one type of flavonoid and are important for reducing inflammation, free radicals, and combating cancer cell development, says Melissa Prest, D.C.N., R.D.N., national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and member of the Prevention Medical Review Board. “Flavanols may provide protection against age-related memory loss by reducing inflammation and blocking plaque build-up in the brain.”

Fruits and vegetables are the best sources of flavanols, says Prest. Foods rich in flavanols include, but are not limited to, onions, lettuce, tomatoes, broccoli, kale, spinach, tea, and wine, says Keri Gans, M.S., R.D., registered dietitian and author of The Small Change Diet.

Aside from flavanols, how can you help mitigate age-related memory loss?

Exercise your brain with puzzles, reading, or learning something new, suggests Prest. “Make sure to get enough rest because poor sleep has been linked to memory loss, stay organized, limit multitasking, focus on taking care of any chronic health conditions, and work on moving your body daily.” Gans adds that limiting alcohol intake and staying social can help mitigate age-related memory loss.

The bottom line

The biggest takeaway from this study is that eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables may have a positive effect on preserving memory and delaying age-related memory loss, says Prest. This is important because there is a potential link between flavanol deficiency and memory loss, she adds. “If you want to preserve your memory, boost your brain health by resting, exercising your mind and body, and adding fruits and vegetables to each meal and snack.”

Gans adds that to stay sharp, “you should be eating plenty of antioxidant-rich fruits and veggies, and only if you have a nutrient-poor diet should you consider supplementation.”

Dietary supplements are products intended to supplement the diet. They are not medicines and are not intended to treat, diagnose, mitigate, prevent, or cure diseases. Be cautious about taking dietary supplements if you are pregnant or nursing. Also, be careful about giving supplements to a child, unless recommended by their healthcare provider.

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