If there were a medicine to help you keep your brain functioning well, would you take it? Sadly, we are not aware of any such medication.
Beverages That Provide Powerful Polyphenols:
There is, however, increasing evidence you could maintain your cognitive edge with some fairly simple dietary changes. Just increase your intake of certain plant chemicals such as proanthocyanidins, anthocyanins and other flavonoids and polyphenols. These compounds provide the red, blue and purple colors in fruits.
Grape Juice for Harried Mothers:
The most recent research included 25 middle-aged working mothers in England. The study compared their performance on cognitive tests and a driving performance simulator when they were drinking twelve ounces of Concord grape juice or a look-alike, taste-alike placebo juice daily (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, online Feb. 10, 2016).
The trial lasted six months and demonstrated subtle but significant improvements in spatial memory and driving performance when the women had been consuming Concord grape juice. (Welch provided the Concord grape juice and the placebo used in the study.) This finding is important, because the women were healthy and their brains were functioning normally, despite the stress of working full-time and having preteen children at home.
Concord Grape Juice and the Brain:
How does Concord grape juice help the brain? Perhaps its ability to increase the flexibility of blood vessels and improve blood flow might play a role (American Journal of Hypertension, Jan., 2014).
Other Sources of Polyphenols:
Grape juice is not the only food that increases blood vessel flexibility and enhances cognitive performance. Blueberries, blackberries and strawberries, like Concord grapes, are rich in colorful plant flavonoids. Animal research has demonstrated that including these berries in the diet improves cognitive function in aging animals and seems to boost the number of neurons in the memory center of the brain (British Journal of Nutrition, Nov. 28, 2015; Nutritional Neuroscience, June, 2009). There have also been studies showing that berry consumption boosts cognitive test scores in older adults and in children (Rejuvenation Research, Feb., 2014; European Journal of Nutrition, online Oct. 5, 2015).
Orange Juice as a Source of Flavanones:
Another study showed that two months of daily high-flavanone orange juice beverages improved cognitive function in older adults compared to low-flavanone orange juice (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Mar., 2015). Unfortunately, we don’t know how to tell whether the orange juice you buy at the grocery store is rich or poor in flavanone compounds.
The Benefits of Cocoa Flavanols:
We have a similar problem when it comes to cocoa flavanols in beverages. There is research demonstrating that flavanol-rich cocoa improves blood flow to the brain (Psychopharmacology, Sep., 2015). Studies also show that older people consuming high doses of cocoa flavanols perform better on cognitive tests (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Mar., 2015; Nutrition Reviews, Oct., 2013). But the cocoa or chocolate that we buy at the supermarket is not labeled with its flavanol content. One possible source of this information is ConsumerLab.com, although the site requires visitors to pay to see the review. We discussed the cardiovascular benefits of both Concord grape juice and chocolate with cocoa flavanols in our book, Best Choices.
Watch Out for Sugar:
Of course, there are some disadvantages to boosting your brain function with chocolate bars or Concord grape juice. Both are high in sugar, and excess sugar is probably no better for the brain than it is for the waistline. But eating dark red, blue or purple berries or drinking polyphenol-rich beverages such as Concord grape juice, high-flavanone orange juice or high-flavanol cocoa regularly sounds like a delicious way to stay sharp.