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Spinach and Blueberries: Food for Good Thought

Research published in the April 2002 issue of the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences suggests that increasing dietary intake of fruits and vegetables high in antioxidant activity—particularly blueberries and spinach—may be an important component of a healthy living strategy designed to maximize brain cell function and thinking ability well into old age.

Animal studies conducted by these researchers have shown that as rats age, their brains are increasingly vulnerable to damage caused by oxidation, and that dietary supplementation with extracts of blueberry and spinach, both of which are high in antioxidants, can decrease this vulnerability.

Oxidation—a potentially harmful but inescapable side-effect of the fact that human metabolic processes involve oxygen—occurs all the time everywhere in the body, creating unstable, highly reactive molecules called free radicals. By disarming free radicals, the antioxidants in fruits and vegetables not only prevent these oxidized molecules from directly damaging cells, but also help to reduce inflammation.

Inflammation is increased in response to free radicals since the body produces inflammatory chemicals to clear out damaged goods. If constantly triggered or out of control, however, the body’s inflammatory response can itself become a source of damage. The antioxidants in plants, such as the powerful anthocyanins found in blueberries, can help keep inflammation a useful servant rather than a harmful foe.

In addition to decreasing levels of inflammation and free radical damage throughout the body, as measured in muscles in the thigh (quadriceps) and calf (gastrocnemius), blueberries have been found to be effective in preventing a number of age-related degenerative changes in brain behavior.

In ongoing studies, researchers are continuing to try to identify just which components in blueberries are primarily responsible for these beneficial effects. So far, blueberries’ anthocyanins show the most dramatic ability to penetrate cell membranes and provide the cell with antioxidant protection.

Overall, researchers think that their studies, which show that increasing dietary intake of fruits and vegetables high in antioxidants can retard or even reverse age-related declines in brain function and mobility in rats, also apply to humans. Regardless of which components are found to be the superstars in the antioxidant arsenal of blueberries or spinach, a cup of either a day may go a long way towards keeping age-related declines in brain function away.

To learn more about these antioxidant-rich members of the World’s Healthiest Foods, click blueberries or spinach.

Want suggestions for ways to enjoy blueberries and spinach more frequently as part of your healthy way of eating? For a list of the World’s Healthiest Foods’ recipes containing either food, click on the Recipe Assistant, select blueberries or spinach on the healthy foods list, and click on the Submit button. A list containing links to all of the World's Healthiest Foods' recipes containing the food chosen will appear immediately below.

Galli RL, Shukitt-Hale B, Youdim KA, Joseph JA. Fruit polyphenolics and brain aging: nutritional interventions targeting age-related neuronal and behavioral deficits. Ann N Y Acad Sci 2002 Apr;959:128-32.

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