Leafy greens are often touted as superfoods with miraculous health benefits ranging from preventing cancer to warding off inflammation.
We now also know that vegetables like spinach, kale and chard are potent superfoods for brain health. A new study from the University of Illinois found that lutein, a pigment found in dark-green vegetables, helps to preserve cognitive function and mental sharpness as the brain ages.
The study, published Dec. 6 in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, adds heft to the hypothesis that a whole-food, plant-based, diet may support brain health and prevent cognitive decline.
Lutein is part of a group of naturally occurring plant pigments known as carotenoids. Kale, spinach and dandelion greens have the highest lutein content of any foods, but the carotenoid can also be found in egg yolks, certain spices and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower and brussels sprouts.
After it’s ingested, lutein accumulates in the brain, where it likely plays a “neuroprotective role,” the study’s authors said. The nutrient is stockpiled in the brain over an entire lifespan ― suggesting it may contribute to lifelong brain health.
“As a neuroprotective nutrient, lutein may support structure and function in neural membranes, and ultimately may support the cognitive functions that rely upon these neural membranes,” Marta Zamroziewicz, a graduate student in neuroscience and the study’s lead author, told The Huffington Post.
For the study, 122 healthy volunteers between ages 65 and 75 were asked to solve problems and complete tests of “crystallized intelligence,” a measure of ability to use skills and knowledge acquired over a lifetime. The researchers took blood samples to test for lutein levels, and conducted MRI tests to measure the volume of different brain structures.The men and women with high lutein levels performed better on the intelligence tests. They also had thicker gray matter in the parahippocampal cortex of the brain, an area that plays an important role in memory coding and retrieval.
The new study isn’t the only recent research to find that leafy greens benefit the brain. Research published last year also found that leafy greens may slow cognitive decline, an effect that those researchers attributed to high levels of lutein, as well as the nutrients vitamin K, folate and beta-carotene.
“This study contributes to a line of evidence which suggests that particular nutrients may be important for slowing specific aspects of aging in the brain,” Zamroziewicz said. “This work helps us understand how certain components of a healthy diet may improve specific aspects of brain health.”
While it’s too early to make specific dietary recommendations based on these findings, it can’t hurt to boost your brain power with these delicious kale recipes.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to lutein as a protein. We regret the error.