This Nutrient May Slow Cognitive Decline and Promote Brain Health

Janet Tiberian Author
By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
December 15, 2022
Person using spoon to lift fruit, nuts, vegetables and grains from a food tray

Maintaining healthy cognitive function is a vital component to living a healthy life. Almost 10 percent of Americans older than 65 have dementia and another 22 percent have mild cognitive impairment – the earliest stage of memory loss, according to a study published in JAMA Neurology

Our genetic history plays a substantial role in cognitive health, but so does lifestyle — and lifestyle choices can often overcome our genetic risk. 

Living a brain friendly lifestyle involves a lot of things: 

  • Exercising regularly
  • Avoiding tobacco 
  • Limiting alcohol
  • Controlling blood pressure
  • Maintaining social connections
  • Keeping an active mind
  • Getting plenty of sleep
  • Handling stress 
  • Managing conditions
  • Eating a healthy diet

Let’s dive a little deeper into what makes a healthy diet. Foods such as berries and kale are well-known for the brain health properties. Why? They’re good sources of flavanols. These compounds -- found in fruits and vegetables – can help maintain brain health, slowing cognitive decline, according to a study published in Neurology.

Which Nutrients Can Prevent Cognitive Decline?

Researchers followed 961 Chicago residents, ages 60 to 100 participating in the Rush University’s Rush Memory and Aging Project for almost seven years. During that time, researchers tracked their diet via food questionnaires; assessed cognitive performance using multiple tests and even analyzed their flavanol intake. Results suggested a strong link between a diet rich in flavanols and several flavanol constituents and a slower decline in global cognitive skills (orientation/attention, memory, verbal fluency, language and visuospatial ability) and multiple cognitive abilities with older age.    

What are flavanols?

Flavanols are one of the six compounds that comprise the flavonoids group of plant-based compounds. Flavonoids are found in a wide range of plant-based foods including fruits, vegetables, tea, chocolate and wine. They’re a significant source of antioxidants, which help protect your cells against free radicals, ultimately lowering the risk for heart disease and cancer. 

“The health benefits of flavonoids are just one of the many reasons doctors encourage their patients to incorporate plenty of plant-based foods into their diet,” says Bernard Kaminetsky, MD, medical director, MDVIP.  

Flavanols and Brain Health

Flavanols contribute to brain health by helping:

  • Lower blood pressure -- high blood pressure damages blood vessels, including the tiny ones that deliver blood to the parts of your brain that handle cognition and memory, resulting in an increased chance of developing a form of dementia like Alzheimer's disease.
  • Improve blood flow to the brain – poor blood flow to the brain tends to stiffen blood vessels, raising the risk for mild cognitive impairment (commonly known as MCI) and dementia. 
  • Prevent blood clots – blood clots can lead to a stroke, damaging blood vessels of the brain, often triggering dementia. Even silent strokes can damage blood vessels, affecting cognition.
  • Defend against cellular damage – brain cells exposed to neurotoxins can become inflamed, promoting memory loss and impairing learning and cognitive functions. 

Flavanols are easy to add to your diet. Good sources include onions, scallions, kale, broccoli, apples, berries and teas. And while it might be tempting to choose chocolate or wine as a main source of flavanols, there are drawbacks with those ingredients (sugar and alcohol, respectively) that may cancel out any benefit. 

“Eating a well-balanced diet with plenty of plant-based foods should help you get all the flavonoids, including flavanols you need,” says Kaminetsky. “However, you should discuss your diet with your primary care doctor before making any changes.”

Looking for a primary care physician? Consider partnering with an MDVIP-affiliated physician. An MDVIP-affiliated doctor can customize a wellness plan for you that can focus on living a brain-healthy lifestyle. Find an MDVIP affiliate near you and begin your partnership in health »

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Keep Your Brain Fit By Keeping Your Gut Healthy / Louis B Malinow, M.D. / March 22, 2016
Taking Care of Your Heart Can Help Maintain Your Brain Health / Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES / July 21, 2020

About the Author
Janet Tiberian Author
Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES

Janet Tiberian is MDVIP's health educator. She has more than 25 years experience in chronic disease prevention and therapeutic exercise.

View All Posts By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
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