As we age, changes naturally occur in our brains – but cognitive decline is the gradual deterioration of brain function – in short, it doesn’t work as it used to.
But what is interesting is that oxidative stress is a strong candidate for causing age-related cognitive decline.
What Is Oxidative Stress?
To understand what oxidative stress is, we first need to understand what free radicals and antioxidants are.
Free radicals are created in the body from normal essential metabolic process like exercise, or when your body converts energy to food. You can think of them like the exhaust fumes of work. But, they can also be a result of external exposure to x-rays, smoke, air pollution, industrial chemicals, the ozone and more.
The thing is, free radicals are a bit cheeky, because they are short of an electron, they snatch what they need from other cells. In the process, these other cells become unstable and then become a free radical themselves – and so the cycle continues.
When the number of free radicals outweighs the body’s ability to cope with them, we end up with oxidative stress.
Oxidative stress can damage cells and even our DNA. It is mostly associated with premature aging, but it has also been seen to play a role in many health conditions like diabetes, cancer, and cognitive decline.
So, here come our antioxidants.
Antioxidants neutralise free radicals – they do have a few tricks up their sleeve to do this, but they can donate an electron, to stabilise the free radical. In this process, they don’t themselves become destabilised, so they stop the cycle! Nifty things aren’t they!
Our body produces some antioxidants on its own, but an insufficient amount, so it can be helpful to get them through the diet.
Antioxidants are plentiful in fruits and vegetables. Not only do you get the antioxidant benefits by increasing your intake, but you will also be reaping the rewards of vitamins, minerals, and fibre too! Which as we all know is crucial to our gut health.
Some Dietary Sources of Antioxidants include:
- Sweet Potatoes,
- Green Peppers,
- Leafy Greens,
- Nuts and Seeds,
- Whole grains,
So What Does This Have To Do With Cognitive Decline?
A recent study has found a link between eating foods rich in antioxidants known as flavonoids and a significantly reduced risk of experiencing early signs of cognitive decline.
The study followed 49,493 women from 1984 to 2006 and 27,842 men from 1986 to 2002. For the women, their level of cognitive decline was measured between 2012 and 2014 and for the men, their level of cognitive decline was measured between 2009 and 2012.
The researchers concluded that higher intake of total flavonoids was associated with lower odds of cognitive decline.
But what is even more interesting is that certain flavonoids appeared to be more protective than others.
Flavones, a type of flavonoid found in yellow and orange fruits and vegetables were associated with a 38% reduction in risk whereas anthocyanins which are present in blueberries, blackberries and cherries were associated with a 24% reduction in risk.
In addition, the researchers conclude that flavonoid supplements may also benefit cognitive performance.
What’s great is that they also state it’s never too late to start! Protective relationships were seen whether people were consuming the flavonoids in their diets 20 years ago or if they started incorporating them more recently.
So, the science is in. Increasing our fruit and vegetable intake could help reduce the risk of cognitive decline as we age.
Aim for 30 plant points per week – it’s a little more rounded than the usual 5-a-day! Plants can include those fruits and veggies, but they also include nuts, seeds, herbs, spices and legumes.