We're always searching for ways to snack our way to a sharper mind! Here's what one new brain-health study discovered about what to look for in some of the best foods for cognition.
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Don't smoke. Walk three times per week. Eat fewer refined carbs and more dietary fiber. Score seven to nine hours of sleep. Keep your brain engaged. Stay socially connected. A growing stack of scientific evidence supports that little lifestyle habits can make a bigdifference in our overall risk for developing cognitive decline that's severe enough to impact daily living, aka dementia.

Pictured Recipe: Purple Fruit Salad

True, genetics do play a role, but all of these little habits can move the needle, and it certainly can't hurt to strive for a more brain-healthy lifestyle. This is especially poignant considering that 1 in 9 American adults over age 65 currently have Alzheimer's disease (one of the main causes of dementia). And by 2050, rates of Americans living with the condition are expected to more than double, according to the Alzheimer's Association.

This week, we're learning more about another food factor that might naturally reduce risk. Adding on to earlier research that suggested that eating a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and other plant-based foods might be a boon for your brain, a new study published May 2 in Neurology reports that people who consume more antioxidants—and, therefore, have higher levels of antioxidants in their blood—might be less likely to develop dementia during their lifespans.

Purple Fruit Salad

What This Brain Health Study Found

Researchers dove into data from 7,283 participants from the third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES 1988-1994), all of whom were at least 45 years old and dementia-free at the start of the study. Each person had a physical exam, a blood test for antioxidant levels and an interview at the beginning of the research period. The scientists then watched their medical reports as part of NHANES for an average of 16 years to determine who developed dementia, including Alzheimer's disease and other forms of the condition.

After analyzing blood antioxidant info from the participants who had—and hadn't—received a dementia diagnosis, there was no clear connection between dementia risk and levels of lycopene, alpha carotene, beta carotene or vitamins A, C or E. However, these specific antioxidants were shown to decrease risk:

  • High amounts of lutein and zeaxanthin, which are found in dark-green vegetables, including broccoli, kale, peas and spinach
  • High levels of beta-cryptoxanthin (carotenoids), which give fruits and vegetables their yellow, orange and red hues and are especially potent in oranges, papaya, peaches, persimmons and tangerines

This impact of these antioxidants was altered a bit when taking into account each participant's income, education and rates of physical activity, which suggests that an overall healthy lifestyle—rather than one single factor—is your best bet for boosting your brain.

"Extending people's cognitive functioning is an important public health challenge," study author May A. Beydoun, Ph.D., M.P.H., of the National Institutes of Health's National Institute on Aging in Baltimore, tells theAmerican Academy of Neurology. "Antioxidants may help protect the brain from oxidative stress, which can cause cell damage. Further studies are needed to test whether adding these antioxidants can help protect the brain from dementia."

Additional research is needed because there was only one "snapshot" of the individuals' antioxidant levels, taken at the outset of the study on one day. While they did also take note of a 24-hour food recall for each person that same day, this may not reflect their antioxidant intake over years and decades. In the future, the researchers hope to check blood antioxidant levels at several points to see if there's a major shift over time. That said, Thomas M. Holland, M.D., of the Rush Institute for Healthy Aging, maintains that people's diets tend to be quite stable over time, barring a major life event that inspires someone to change their diet or lifestyle, such as a serious injury or illness.

The Bottom Line

There's still so much more to learn about how these nutrients might impact our brains—and our bodies as a whole—the researchers admit. But as we learn more, it certainly can't hurt to incorporate more of these dark-green and orange brain-supporting plant foods into our meals and snacks as part of an overall well-balanced menu.