As the number of people being diagnosed with dementia and other debilitating brain diseases is projected to grow steadily in the coming decades, doctors and researchers are not only looking for effective treatments, but also for ways to promote general brain health. As it turns out, one way to slow brain aging may not be that different from what works for our general physical health: eating salad.
Scientists at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago monitored the diet of 960 elderly people. They discovered that participants who ate up to 1.3 servings of leafy vegetables a day performed better in tests designed to understand how the brain ages than their peers who ate no salad at all. The volunteers were in their early 80s and received a regular “food frequency questionnaire” between 2004 and 2013, along with two cognitive assessments.
Although the researchers could not identify a causal link between vegetable consumption and slower brain aging, they think nutrients like lutein, folate, beta carotene, and phylloquinone — naturally present in leafy greens — may play a part.
The correlation is quite striking, however. Over 10 years of follow-up, people who ate the most salad were found to be on average 11 years younger from a cognitive perspective.
Many other factors can have an impact on brain health, some of which are lifestyle related. Seafood and alcohol consumption, smoking, high blood pressure, obesity, and the amount of physical and cognitive activity are all criteria that the researchers controlled for when assessing the robustness of their findings.
However, “the study results do not prove that eating green, leafy vegetables slows brain aging, but it does show an association,” said professor of internal medicine at Rush Medical School and study author Martha Clare Morris in a statement. “The study cannot rule out other possible reasons for the link.”
There is a wealth of clinical studies trying to capture the effects of a good diet on brain health, and on ageing in particular. Some look at the power of a single ingredient, others focus on broader dietary patterns.
But bad food is rarely the sole contributor to brain decline. Binge eating, a lack of antioxidants, and a diet low in fibers combine with other factors — a sedentary lifestyle or emotional stress, for example — to put a strain on our brain.
Eating more greens may not be a silver bullet. But this study joins a growing body of research that focuses on small, easy-to-adopt changes that are sure to improve our physical fitness, and may also help our brains in the long run.