As hard as it can be to eat well, we all know that in order to age well, it is necessary to clean up our diet.
There has been a long history of evidence that suggests heart-healthy diets help protect the brain, and according to a recent study published in Neurology, a diet rich in greens may actually help slow cognitive decline.
The research, conducted by Rush Medical College in Chicago, indicated the healthy seniors who had daily helpings of leafy green vegetables — such as spinach, kale, and collard greens — had a slower rate of cognitive decline, compared to those who tended to eat little or no greens.
“The association is quite strong,” says study author and director of the Rush Institute for Healthy Aging, Martha Clare Morris.
For the study, Morris and her colleagues analyzed 960 participants of the Memory and Aging Project with an average age of 81, none suffering from dementia. Each year the participants had their eating and lifestyle habits analyzed and were put through an array of memory tests.
To analyze the relationship between leafy greens and age-related cognitive changes, the researchers assigned each participant to one of five groups, according to the amount of greens eaten. Those who tended to eat the most greens comprised the top quintile, consuming, on average, about 1.3 servings per day. Those in the bottom quintile said they consume little or no greens.
It was observed that after five years of monitoring, the rate of decline for those in the top quintile was about half the decline rate of those in the lowest quantile.
So, what’s the most convenient way to get these greens into your diet?
“My goal every day is to have a big salad,” says Candace Bishop, one of the study participants.
“I get those bags of dark, leafy salad mixes.”
A serving size is defined as a half-cup of cooked greens, or a cup of raw greens.
Does Bishop still feel sharp? “I’m still pretty damn bright,” she tells me with a giggle. She isn’t convinced that her daily salad explains her healthy aging.
Many factors play into healthy aging — and this study alone does not prove that eating greens will fend off memory decline. Morris explains that with this kind of research scientists can only establish an association — not necessarily causation — between a healthy diet and a mind that stays sharp.
Still, she says, even after adjusting for other factors that might play a role, such as lifestyle, education and overall health, “we saw this association [between greens and a slower rate of cognitive decline] over and above accounting for all those factors.”
What might explain a benefit from greens?
Turns out, these vegetables contain a range of nutrients and bioactive compounds including vitamin E and K, lutein, beta-carotene, and folate.
“They have different roles and different biological mechanisms to protect the brain,” says Morris. More research is needed, she says, to fully understand their influence, but scientists know that consuming too little of these nutrients can be problematic.
For instance, “if you have insufficient levels of folate in your diet you can have higher levels of homocysteine,” Morris says. This can set the stage for inflammation and a buildup of plaque, or fatty deposits, inside your arteries, which increases the risk of stroke. Research shows elevated homocysteine is associated with cognitive impairment among older adults.
Another example: Getting plenty of Vitamin E from foods in your diet can help protect cells from damage and also has been associated with better cognitive performance.
“So, when you eat leafy greens, you’re eating a lot of different nutrients, and together they can have a powerful impact,” Morris says.
The biggest takeaway from this research? Remembering to eat your greens now will help you remember years from now.
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