By Katie Gilbert, published on March 8, 2006 - last reviewed on June 30, 2009
Next time you're ambling down the produce aisle, keep an eye out for some of the smallest and little-known food superheroes—dark berries.
A study finds that adding boysenberries and black currants to your diet can give you an anti-aging boost that can protect all parts of your body and even postpone the development of Alzheimer's disease and dementia.
Berries and other colorful fruits and veggies are chock full of polyphenols, a type of antioxidant that buffers against disease by protecting even the tiniest of bodily cells from the natural stresses of the environment and aging. These helpful chemicals—also found in green tea, olive oil, dark chocolate and pomegranates—keep your cells (and you) vibrant and active.
How can you reap the benefits of these mighty little age-fighters? One author of the study, in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, offers some refreshingly simple advice: Eat your colors.
Since polyphenols are largely responsible for providing plants their hues, choosing a varied color palate translates into treating your body to a vast array of the antioxidants. Include blueberries, strawberries, cranberries, purple grape juice, pomegranates on your plate. The more closely your diet resembles a rainbow, the better.
People may not realize a colorful diet is actually a heart-healthy diet, says James Joseph, a neuroscientist and director of the Neuroscience Lab at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University. Antioxidants protect arteries by keeping them supple and strong. Healthy arteries not only mean a healthy cardiovascular system but healthy gray matter as well. Says Joseph: "What's good for your heart is also good for your brain."
It's possible that someday we'll use berry extracts in supplements or processed foods, says Joseph, but he believes that the eating fresh berries provides the most bang for your buck. Important compounds can easily be lost in processing berries, he says. Indeed, there may be chemicals in fruits and veggies that haven't even been identified.
Still, adding color to your diet isn't a quick fix. If you're serious about heart and brain health, "you want to make this a lifestyle," Joseph says. Healthy living means the triad of behavior: diet, physical and mental exercise.
Exercise affects brain in a way that's similar to polyphenols. Researchers from the McKnight Brain Institute of the University of Florida find that rats with exercise wheels in their cages show fewer signs of aging in their brains than their sedentary peers, and the same conclusions have been drawn by comparing elderly humans who exercise with those who do not.
That leaves mental exercise as the last leg in the triad. Reading books, tackling crossword puzzles and other kinds of brain workouts may be as powerful in Alzheimer's prevention as black currants and boysenberries.
Knowing is half the battle. Now that we know food and exercise are potent weapons in the battle against disease, we have one less excuse not to put up a superhero-worthy fight.