Would you like to stay sharp as you grow older? Almost everyone would. Memory lapses can be extremely frustrating as well as embarrassing, particularly when they start to become more frequent. Experts recently concluded there is no single “magic bullet” that can ward off dementia. However, a diet rich in the blue, red or purple compounds called anthocyanins might be helpful (Kent et al, Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, June 2017). Many berries are full of anthocyanins. Can they help maintain cognitive capacity?
Berries for Brain Power:
Q. I read your article on the brain benefits of smoothies. You emphasized blueberries, but you cited a study that suggests strawberries are just as effective. I wonder about blackberries as well, since the active “ingredient” is often the pigment. Should I stick with blueberries, or can I eat any of the above for better brain function? What about raspberries?
A. The anthocyanins that give berries their bright red and purple colors are powerful antioxidants. In laboratory tests, blueberries, cranberries, blackberries and strawberries all scored highly. There is reason to believe that regular consumption of such berries might “protect against age-related deficits in cognitive and motor function” (Shukitt-Hale, Gerontology, Oct. 2012). Older adults are not the only ones who may benefit from berry consumption. One study found, for example, that wild blueberry powder helped schoolchildren perform better on cognitive tests (Whyte, Schafer & Williams, European Journal of Nutrition, Sep. 2016).
The Nurses Health Study Endorses Berries:
You are correct that strawberries seem to have similar benefits. A large cohort study, the Nurses Health Study, found that women who eat more blueberries and strawberries maintain more cognitive function as they age (Devore et al, Annals of Neurology, July 2012). The Nurses Health Study has followed more than 120,000 women since 1976. Those participating in the cognitive tests every other year were at least 70 years old. The investigators report that eating berries on a regular basis slows cognitive decline by the equivalent of up to two and a half years.
A different analysis of data from the Nurses Health Study shows that women who eat more flavonoids (including anthocyanins) age more successfully (Samieri et al, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Dec. 2014). These women were eating more oranges, onions and apples as well as more berries.
Research in Mice:
No one knows exactly how berries might contribute to healthier brain aging. Research in mice suggests that anthocyanins protect the microglia from stress (Carey et al, Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, June 26, 2013). The scientists also tested the chemical components of blueberry extract independently. To their surprise, they found that lower doses of blueberry extract are effective. They conclude that compounds in blueberries must be acting synergistically.
In addition, another study found that supplementing lab rats’ diets with blackberry extract helped offset some of the effects of high-fat chow (Meireles et al, Food & Function, Jan. 2016). However, not all of the consequences of blackberry extract consumption were beneficial.
What About Raspberries?
There is less research on raspberries compared to blueberries. Nonetheless, raspberries also contain high levels of anthocyanins (Mullen et al, Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, April 14, 2010). In summary, adding raspberries to your mix of other berries should be beneficial as well as delicious.