Foods and drinks rich in antioxidants – those natural substances that can prevent damage to cells caused by oxidative stress – can reduce a person’s risk of developing dementia, a recent study reports.
Researchers at the Laboratory of Epidemiology and Population Science at the National Institute on Aging studied and followed more than 7,000 people in the U.S. between the ages of 45 and 90 for nearly 17 years.
Those who had higher levels of certain carotenoids – pigments that give fruits and vegetables a yellow to reddish color – were associated with a lower risk of dementia. Specifically, high levels of lutein+zeaxanthin and beta-cryptoxanthin – two types of carotenoids – were associated with a lower risk of dementia and overall brain protection.
Carotenoids not only protect you from disease, but they can also enhance your immune system. The body converts carotenoids to vitamin A, which can be essential for growth, immune function and eye health.
This is the first study that analyzed levels of antioxidants and carotenoids in the blood versus examining people’s dietary intakes of these substances.
Why does a diet rich in antioxidants and carotenoids reduce dementia risk?
Consuming foods that contain antioxidants and carotenoids may protect against the development of dementia by reducing oxidative stress. This type of stress occurs when there are more highly reactive molecules in the body that obtain oxygen (called free radicals) than there are molecules that neutralize them, known as antioxidants.
Antioxidants and carotenoids can help prevent damage to cells from free radicals, which are unstable atoms that can damage cells and cause illness, aging and a host of other diseases.
“Free radicals do harm all over your body; for example, you get damage in your skin from excessive sun exposure and the impact of free radicals,” said Scott Kaiser, MD, a geriatrician and the director of geriatric cognitive health for the Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. “Every part of our body is potentially susceptible to oxidative stress, which is damaged from free radicals.”
However, when people consume foods high in antioxidants, Kaiser said, these substances can collect and scavenge these free radicals in the body.
“Essentially, antioxidants serve as a cleanup crew or even the neutralizer that can mitigate the harm of these free radicals.”
Foods high in antioxidants and carotenoids
“Green leafy vegetables like spinach, kale and parsley are among the best sources. There are other ones like egg yolks, corn and red grapes,” Kaiser said. “Eating these types of foods that are rich in antioxidants and low in processed junk foods is a critical piece of that overall approach to what I call a ‘healthy aging game plan’ to maintain healthy full lives and avoid disease.”
Other foods rich in antioxidants and carotenoids include:
- Red beans
- Black beans
- Bell peppers
- Apple juice
- Green tea
Other foods that may reduce dementia risk
According to Kaiser, certain diets are known to potentially be less harmful to brain health and may reduce the risk of dementia. This includes the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay diet, also known as the MIND diet.
The MIND diet encourages people to eat green leafy vegetables, berries, nuts, whole grains, fish, poultry, beans, unsaturated fats like olive oil, eggs and low amounts of red meat.
Not all studies prove following the Mediterranean or similar diet may reduce the risk of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease or slow cognitive decline; however, some evidence has shown these diets might increase specific nutrients that may protect the brain from anti-inflammatory processes and may stop bad proteins like amyloid-beta from forming, which are typically found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s.
For example, one study found participants who followed the MIND diet closely had a 53% reduced rate of Alzheimer’s disease compared to those who did not follow the diet closely. Another study revealed following the MIND diet was connected with a substantial slowing of cognitive decline for an average of five years.
“The MIND diet would encourage somebody to eat highly processed sugary foods less than five times a week because of the potential harms of those refined sugars on brain health and in the potential increased risk of dementia,” Kaiser said.
What this means for caregivers and seniors
The findings of the study further illustrate how a healthy and nutrient-dense diet can be a powerful tool to prevent or delay early disease, especially as more seniors continue to age, Elise Deming, MS, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist, told Seasons.
“For caregivers and seniors, it reaffirms the general recommendations to consume a plant-forward diet loaded with antioxidants,” she said.
Caregivers should consider incorporating more foods and beverages rich in antioxidants and carotenoids in their loved one’s diet; however, the study authors said more research is needed to establish specific or necessary amounts of these substances that people should be consuming each day.
In addition, at this time there is no specific amount of antioxidants or carotenoids that are considered to be unsafe, Kaiser said. In fact, not enough people are eating these types of foods. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only one in 10 adults get enough fruits or vegetables in their daily diet.
“These kinds of food on the list are not the concern; the focus should be on including more of these foods in the diet,” Kaiser said. “It’s never too early or too late. You can really yield benefits—almost anybody could benefit from an improved diet at any point.”
“It’s never too early or too late. You can really yield benefits—almost anybody could benefit from an improved diet at any point.”
Caregivers and seniors should talk with their doctor or a licensed nutritionist about how to incorporate foods high in antioxidants and carotenoids into their diet.