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Turn Back the Aging Clock with Blueberries

The Fountain of Youth is not Viagra—at least in rats, research suggests. Old rats fed the equivalent of a cup of blueberries a day became not only smarter, but also more coordinated than other old rats. Researchers are now trying to figure out precisely what constituents in blueberries are responsible for reversing the age-associated decline in the rat brain—and they’re eating a lot more of one of the World's Healthiest Foods: blueberries.

Initially, the researchers had hypothesized that certain phytochemicals (plant chemicals) might offer some protection against the deleterious effects of aging. To evaluate their theory, first, they supplemented the diets of some rats with spinach and strawberries, two other foods whose high nutrient density qualifies them as among the World's Healthiest Foods. Researchers soon found that the rats given spinach and strawberries learned better than rats on a standard rat chow diet. Then, the researchers also added an extract of blueberries to the diet of some of the supplemented rats. Rats receiving the blueberries not only learned faster than other rats, but their motor skills also improved.

When the rats' brains were examined, the brain cells of those given blueberries communicated more effectively. But what excited the researchers most was the fact that these improvements in neuronal (brain cell) communication were accompanied by improvements in motor ability. Until now, nothing has been discovered that can reverse age-associated declines motor behavior—but the blueberries did!

When the study began, the rats were 19 months old—the equivalent of 60 to 65 years in human age—and the researchers fed them for two months, so by the end of the study, the rats’ age had increased to a human equivalent of 70-75. Not only did the geriatric blueberry-fed rats do better on standard rat tests, such as swimming in a water maze or finding an underwater platform in murky water, they also did better on tests of coordination involving a spinning or inclined rod. Young rats—6 months old—could stay on a spinning rod an average of 14 seconds. Old rats fed standard chow fell off after 6 seconds, but the elderly blueberry-supplemented rats stayed on for 10 seconds!

The researchers are now trying to figure out what compounds in blueberries are responsible for these effects. Numerous studies have shown that the plant pigments that color fruits and vegetables—for example, the beta-carotene that gives sweet potatoes, pumpkin and carrots their orange hue or the lycopene responsible for tomatoes’ red—are associated with a wide variety of health-promoting effects. Current thinking is that these plant pigments color us healthy by acting as potent antioxidants and providing protection against oxidative stress. Oxidation—a potentially harmful but inescapable side-effect of the fact that human metabolic processes involve oxygen—occurs all the time in the body, creating the unstable, highly reactive molecules called free radicals. By disarming free radicals, the pigments in fruits and vegetables not only prevent these oxidized molecules from directly damaging cells, but also help to reduce inflammation, which is a primary way in which the body clears out damaged goods. If constantly triggered or out of control, however, the body’s inflammatory response can itself become a source of damage. Plant pigments, such as those found in blueberries, can help keep inflammation a useful servant rather than a harmful foe.

In addition to the antioxidant vitamins A, C and E, a wide variety of powerful protective phytochemicals have now been identified in many fruits and vegetables including the resveratrol found in red grapes, grape juice and red wine; and the anthocyanins that paint strawberries red and blueberries blue. The European blueberry, the bilberry, contains potent proanthocyanadins known to prevent and even reverse macular degeneration, the most common cause of blindness in the elderly. Our home-grown blueberry contains similar compounds that, most likely, are responsible for its age-defying benefits.

To learn more about why this beneficial berry is considered one of the World's Healthiest Foods, click blueberries.

Want suggestions for ways to enjoy blueberries more frequently as part of your healthy way of eating? For a list of the World’s Healthiest Foods’ Recipes containing blueberries, use the Recipe Assistant, select “blueberries” from the healthy foods list, and click on the Submit button. A list containing links to all our recipes containing blueberries will appear immediately below.

Reference: Journal of Neuroscience, September 1999

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