Healthy Eating: The Effect on Your Brain

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Consuming more fruits and vegetables may be a reliable way to improve your brain power, says a new study from researchers at the University of York in Toronto.

A diet featuring a heavy dose of fruits and vegetables is already celebrated for its health-promoting properties that are “strongly associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and age-related functional decline,” according to the study’s authors writing in the Journal of Public Health.

Flickr Image Courtesy: ravas51, CC BY-SA 4.0
Flickr Image Courtesy: ravas51, CC BY-SA 4.0

Now you can add improved cognitive functioning to the list. Assessing a trove of population health data for more than 45,000 Canadians aged 30 or over, the research team tracked various health attributes, from physical activity and education to dietary patterns to body mass index (BMI).

After sifting through the data, the researchers discovered a direct link between higher daily fruit and vegetable consumption and cognitive scores among adults. The brain benefits were a boon for people, regardless of their age.

But the researchers also uncovered some nuances in the data that varied by age group. Younger adults with the highest levels of fruit and vegetable consumption “reported better cognitive functioning scores at every BMI category,” the researchers noted. Younger adults with a healthy diet also scored better regardless of their physical activity.

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That blanket protection lessened as participants aged. For older adults, the benefits of more fruits and vegetables was augmented when individuals also participated in regular physical activity.

The cognitive functioning of older adults also varied depending on their weight. Essentially, older adults at a healthy weight saw a greater benefit of fruit and vegetable consumption than older adults who consumed as many fruits and vegetables but weighed more.

Filling a Gap in the Brain-Health Study

The researchers hope to fill a gap in the medical community’s understanding of fruit and vegetable consumption and keeping a sharp mind as one ages. “Very little research exists in this area,” they wrote.

Yet millions currently live with dementia, and that number is expected to triple by 2050 due to an aging population and increased longevity. The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that Alzheimer’s and dementia will cost the United States $236 billion in 2016.

“If the onset of dementia can be delayed by five years, there would be a reduction in over a million cases after 10 years, and over 4 million cases after 50 years,” the study’s authors said.  

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The researchers theorize that eating more fruits and vegetables may improve cognitive functioning in a number of ways – the foods contain phytochemicals and vitamins that may improve brain health by protecting the brain’s neural activity, stimulating the immune system or detoxifying the body. The researchers note that despite little research in this area, previous studies in Spain and Korea corroborate their findings.

They also discovered a key link between education and cognitive health, finding that “higher education levels were associated with better cognitive scores.”

“Education may be assisting in the process of delaying cognitive decline by increasing cognitive reserve, the ability of the human brain to cope with damage by using different brain processes to retain the ability to function well,” wrote the researchers.

“Cognitive reserve is developed through intellectual stimulation and translates into a higher volume of connections between neurons and stronger rates of cerebral blood flow.”

Richard Scott

Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.