If you’ve ever had the pleasure of picking wild blueberries or strawberries, you’ve experienced the incredible burst of fragrance and flavor offered by each berry. It is easy to get the impression that something that good MUST be incredibly good for you. That might not be a reliable test of healthfulness but, in this case, it happens to be so. Blueberries, as well as strawberries, raspberries, cherries, cranberries and other berries all have remarkable health benefits.
New studies reveal that eating blueberries every day make a significant difference in cognition in older adults.
A double-blind controlled trial in which 13 men and 24 women, between 60 and 75 years old, ate the equivalent of one cup of fresh blueberries every day for 90 days or a blueberry placebo had an interesting result. The group that ate blueberries showed significantly fewer repetition errors in the California Verbal Learning test.* These findings show that the addition of easily achievable quantities of blueberry to the diets of older adults can improve some aspects of cognition.
*The California Verbal Learning test is one of the most widely used neuropsychological tests in North America. It is a relatively new approach to clinical psychology and computer science. It is a measure of episodic verbal learning and memory, which demonstrates sensitivity to a range of clinical conditions.
A second study found enhanced neural activation after 16 weeks of daily blueberry supplementation in older adults with mild cognitive impairment at risk for dementia. The researchers concluded that these data demonstrate, for the first time, enhanced neural response during a working memory challenge in blueberry-treated older adults with cognitive decline and are consistent with prior trials showing neurocognitive benefit with blueberry supplementation in this at-risk population.
What’s so special about blueberries?
You’re already familiar with antioxidants, which include vitamins, minerals, herbs, and other nutrients that protect us from free radical damage. Phytochemicals fall under the category of antioxidants, but more specifically, they are compounds found in plants that have been recognized for their potential to fight and protect us from disease. More than 900 different phytochemicals have been identified as components of food, and many more phytochemicals continue to be discovered, it seems, on a weekly basis. It is estimated that there may be more than 100 different phytochemicals in just one serving of vegetables—which is one of the reasons health experts urge us to eat at least five to eight servings of fruit and vegetables each day.
Researchers have known for a long time that the phytochemicals in plants protect them from disease. But it wasn’t until 1980 when The National Cancer Institute began evaluating phytochemicals for their safety, efficacy and potential for preventing and treating human diseases that health experts recommended that we increase our consumption of fruit and vegetables as a valuable way to ward off illness and disease.
Blueberries come out on top
In a test that measures the antioxidant potency of a variety of foods—the Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) test—blueberries came out on top. This tiny, magnificent berry contains a huge serving of antioxidants that have been demonstrated to benefit numerous health conditions, including the prevention of oxidative and inflammatory stress on the lining of blood vessels and red blood cells. Berry anthocyanins also improve neuronal and cognitive brain functions, ocular health as well as protect genomic DNA integrity.
Berries as Smart Nutrients
In a landmark study in 1999, researchers at Tufts University discovered just how powerful this berry is by feeding old rats the equivalent of one cup of blueberries a day. The results were dramatic. The old rats that were fed the blueberries:
- learned faster than the young rats
- were more coordinated
- showed improved motor skills
- outperformed the young rats in memory tests
In one test, 6-month-old rats were able to run on a rod an average of 14 seconds, when compared to old rats, which fell off after six seconds. But remarkably, the old rats that were fed a blueberry supplement could stay on the rod for 10 seconds. Although the rats didn’t become young again, their skills improved tremendously. When the researchers examined the rats’ brains, they found that the brain neurons of the rats that ate the blueberries were able to communicate better.
The study was significant because the researchers discovered blueberry’s potential for reversing some age-related impairments in both memory and motor coordination. The researchers concluded that these findings suggest that, in addition to their known beneficial effects on cancer and heart disease, phytochemicals present in antioxidant-rich foods may be beneficial in reversing the course of neuronal and behavioral aging.
An earlier study done by researchers at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University published research showing that nutritional antioxidants, such as the polyphenols found in blueberries, can reverse age-related declines in brain function, namely the cognitive and motor deficits associated with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Since then, hundreds of studies have been done showing that all kinds of berries exert a protective effect against oxidation—a principal cause of cellular damage and death—which ultimately results in illness and disease.
Protects against brain damage
Among blueberry varieties, wild or lowbush blueberries contain the highest antioxidant power and were shown to protect laboratory animals from brain damage from an induced stroke, after they ate blueberries for six weeks. The researchers concluded that this study suggests that inclusion of blueberries in the diet may improve ischemic stroke outcomes.
There are thousands of health-promoting phytochemicals in plants—which is why it’s so important to eat a wide variety of colorful fruits and vegetables every day. Berries contain numerous phytochemicals (including anthocyanins, lutein, carotenoids, ellagic acid, chlorogenic acid, and caffeic acid) that have potent antioxidant and inflammatory effects—that have specifically been shown to protect us from numerous health ailments and diseases.
But most Americans do not meet the Recommended Daily Allowance of five to eight fruits and vegetables a day. The good news is that taking a daily nutritional supplement containing a mixture of berry extracts is an excellent way to get a variety of unique phytochemicals, and cover your antioxidant protection needs.
Berry good for you recipes
- 2 frozen bananas
- 4-5 strawberries
- 1/2 cup of blueberries
- 1/2 cup of raspberries
- 1 tsp. of maple syrup or stevia (optional)
Blend in a food processor or blender. About 500 calories (if you use the maple syrup) and 0 fat
Two berry crisp
- 1 pint blueberries
- 1 pint strawberries, hulled, sliced
- 2 cups sugar-free granola
- 2 TB coconut oil
Preheat oven to 375°. Toss prepared berries in an 8-inch square glass baking dish. Blend coconut oil with the granola and sprinkle the mixture over the berries.Cover dish with foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove foil and bake another 10 minutes, until topping is browned. Serve warm or at room temperature, with ice cream or whipped topping.
Barbra Cohn cared for her husband Morris for 10 years. He passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Afterward, she was compelled to write “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia”—Winner of the 2018 Book Excellence Award in Self-Help—in order to help other caregivers feel healthier and happier, have more energy, sleep better, feel more confident, deal with feelings of guilt and grief, and to ultimately experience inner peace. “Calmer Waters” is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Boulder Book Store, Tattered Cover Book Store, Indie Bound.org, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.