Eating just one portion of leafy vegetables a day may lower the risk of dementia and de-ages your brain, a study suggests.
Scans showed seniors who ate at least six portions of greens had lower levels of plaques linked to Alzheimer’s and had brains four years younger than their peers.
Dementia is thought to be caused by amyloid proteins in the brain that clump together and cause damage to key neurons.
Leafy green vegetables are rich in antioxidants which may help protect the brain from oxidative stress, which is linked to the build-up of these amyloid plaques.
Study author Puja Agarwal, from RUSH University in Chicago, said: ‘These results are exciting. Improvement in people’s diets in just one area— such as eating more than six servings of green leafy vegetables per week, or not eating fried foods— was associated with fewer amyloid plaques in the brain similar to being about four years younger.’
People who had eaten the most green leafy vegetables, or seven or more servings per week, had plaque amounts in their brains corresponding to being almost 19 years younger than people who ate the fewest, with one or fewer servings per week, the study found
Researchers looked at 581 people with an average of 84 at the time of diet assessment, who agreed to donate their brains at death to advance research on dementia.
They completed annual questionnaires asking how much of various foods they ate.
Those involved in the research died an average of seven years after the start of the study.
Right before death, 39 percent had been diagnosed with dementia. When examined after death, 66 percent met the criteria for Alzheimer’s disease.
During a post-mortem examination, researchers examined their brains to determine the amounts of amyloid plaques and tau tangles.
Both are found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease but may also be found in the brains of older people with normal cognition.
Researchers then looked back at the food questionnaires which were collected and ranked the quality of diet for each person.
They were given scores based on how strictly they adhered to a version of the Mediterranean diet that prioritizes leafy greens such as spinach and kale and other vegetables.
The scientists found that people following the veg-heavy diet scored one point higher and had the same amount of plaque in their brains as people who were 4.25 years younger.
The traditional Mediterranean diet, which is similar but emphasizes olive oil, nuts and fish, has been linked to a host of health benefits, including cardiovascular diseases, and a longer lifespan.
For the Mediterranean diet, there were 11 food categories.
People were given a score of zero to 55, with higher scores if they adhered to the diet in these categories: whole grain cereals, fruit, vegetables, legumes, olive oil, fish and potatoes.
Eating red meat, poultry and full-fat dairy products resulted in a lower score.
For the Mediterranean-DASH Diet Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND), there were 15 categories.
People were given a score of zero to 15, with one point each for 10 brain-healthy food groups including green leafy vegetables, other vegetables, nuts, berries, beans, whole grains, fish, poultry, olive oil and wine.
The researchers found that people who scored highest for the Mediterranean diet had average plaque and tangle amounts in their brains similar to being 18 years younger than people who scored lowest.
Published in Neurology, it also found that people who scored highest for adhering to the MIND diet had average plaque and tangle amounts similar to being 12 years younger than those who scored lowest.
People who had eaten the most green leafy vegetables, or seven or more servings per week, had plaque amounts in their brains corresponding to being almost 19 years younger than people who ate the fewest, with one or fewer servings per week.
Dr Agarwal added that while the study found an association between specific diets and fewer dementia disease plaques, it did not establish a cause and effect relationship.
He said: ‘While our research doesn’t prove that a healthy diet resulted in fewer brain deposits of amyloid plaques, also known as an indicator of Alzheimer’s disease, we know there is a relationship and following the MIND and Mediterranean diets may be one way that people can improve their brain health and protect cognition as they age.
‘Future studies are needed to establish our findings further.’