Superfoods have been hailed with keeping nearly every organ in our bodies running smoothly, including the master control center, the brain. But a new study published online in the journal Neurology may leave you wondering if all of the berries and other antioxidant-packed goodies are even worth it.
The study looked at nearly 5,400 people ages 55 and older over the course of a 14-year period. Researchers gathered information regarding the types of foods the study participants ate and then categorized the people's diets as high, moderate, and low in antioxidants. Surprisingly, they found no stroke or dementia protection in people who ate more antioxidants.
The scientists looked at total antioxidant levels in diet alone and excluded supplements.
"Opposed to overall antioxidant levels, it's really more about specific antioxidants and antioxidant-rich foods," explains study author Elizabeth Devore, DSc, instructor at the Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard School of Medicine in Boston.
She says previous literature does suggest the vitamin E you get from foods like avocadoes and nuts could protect against dementia, while dietary vitamin C commonly found in citrus seems to protect against stroke. So yes, antioxidants do matter; it's just not a one-size-fits-all approach.
"It might sound surprising, but if you think of the thousands of antioxidant nutrients, all with very different chemical structures, it's not that surprising that they might have different effects on the body," Devore says.
Other brain experts understand her study but are concerned that the general public may misinterpret it and think antioxidants in the diet don't matter. In fact, there's mounting evidence that Mediterranean-style diets rich in brightly colored fruits and vegetables, olive oils, and nuts can help preserve brain health. Some of Devore's own research, published in 2012, found regularly eating strawberries and blueberries can slow the onset of mental decline in the elderly by 2.5 years.
While food certainly plays a role—with some antioxidants showing more brain benefits than others—some brain health experts say we shouldn't focus entirely on diet.
For total brain health, you have to create a supportive total approach that involves diet, exercise, remaining cognitively active, taxing your brain, taking on new tasks, interacting socially, and being creative, explains Daniel C. Potts, MD, president of the Cognitive Dynamics Foundation and associate clinical professor at the University of Alabama School of Medicine.
"All of these things play a part, and they play a part that's very interdependent of the others," Dr. Potts explains. "We can eat all of the Mediterranean Diet that we want to, but if we sit on the couch or lock ourselves in the room, it's not going to have the same effects. It's not just a quick fix here, quick fix there."
Here's how to keep your brain fit:
• Beware of Western diet pitfalls. The westernized American diet rich in animal fats and inflammatory processed foods and low in vegetables and healthy seafood picks takes a toll on your blood vessels, heart, and brain. This diet invites metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure, and diabetes, diseases that directly and indirectly affect your brain.
• Paint your plate. Make sure brightly colored fruits and vegetables find a place on your plate at every meal. These antioxidant-rich plant foods support vascular health and likely help repair your neurons and the damage associated with aging, Dr. Potts says.
• Avoid sugar overload. Researchers found that too much fructose, a main component of high-fructose corn syrup and table sugar, actually made animals dumber in lab studies. Plus, too much fructose promotes metabolic syndrome and obesity, two other major stressors on brain health.