The Top 10 Foods for Protecting the Brain as You Age

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Senior cooking a healthy meal
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Here’s another good reason to eat your veggies: They may help prevent cognitive decline, according to a 2021 study out of Harvard University.

Published in the journal Neurology, the study looked at the health data and self-reported dietary information of more than 77,000 men and women in the U.S. over a 20-year period. Average age at the start of the period was 51 for men and 48 for women.

The study authors found that those who consumed the most flavonoids were 20% less likely to report having trouble with thinking and memory than those who consumed the fewest flavonoids.

Flavonoids are naturally occurring compounds responsible for the vivid colors of many vegetables and fruits. They are also considered powerful antioxidants, which may fight inflammation, among other health benefits.

“There is mounting evidence suggesting flavonoids are powerhouses when it comes to preventing your thinking skills from declining as you get older,” says study co-author Dr. Walter Willett, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Even study participants who didn’t eat a flavanoid-rich diet until later in life saw some cognitive benefits. In other words, it’s not too late to adopt healthier eating habits. Remember that the next time you make up your grocery list.

Following are the foods that are most strongly associated with low odds of self-reported cognitive decline, according to the study findings.

1. Brussels sprouts

Brussels sprouts
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Overcook these little green globes, and you’ll get stinky sulfur smells and a bitter taste. Cook them right, and you’ll enjoy a nutty sweetness – plus some pretty tasty health benefits, according to Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Brussels sprouts contain beta-carotene, vitamins C and K, folate, fiber and other types of healthy goodness.

2. Strawberries

fresh produce
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First, the bad news: Those sweet, sweet strawbs are No. 1 on the “Dirty Dozen” list, which is what the Environmental Working Group calls its annual ranking of the fruits and veggies with the most pesticide residue.

On the bright side: Berries are some of the healthiest things you can eat, according to another Harvard professor who was not involved in the 2021 study.

They provide vitamins C and K, potassium, magnesium, fiber and prebiotics (carbohydrates that promote a healthy human gut). Berry consumption can reduce the risk of heart attack, and it appears that foods high in anthocyanins — a type of flavonoid found mostly in strawberries and blueberries — can help you keep weight off.

Bonus: You get the same health benefits from any frozen berries as you do from fresh ones.

3. Cauliflower

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Cauliflower is so popular as a substitute for mashed potatoes and rice that it’s now commercially available in those forms. You can even buy cauliflower pizza crust.

According to the Mayo Clinic Health System, this “nutrition superstar” is high in vitamin C and a good source of folate.

4. Raw spinach

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Although the cartoon character Popeye ate the canned version, it seemed to give him quite the energy boost. No wonder: According to Texas A&M University, the leafy green vegetable is a source of folate and vitamins A, C and K.

Unfortunately, spinach also made it onto the Dirty Dozen list: It comes in at No. 2, right behind strawberries. So consider buying organic.

5. Yams and sweet potatoes

Sweet potatoes
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While often confused with each other, yams and sweet potatoes are two different foods. The “yams” you see at the grocery store are likely to be some version of sweet potato, according to Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. True yams have white or purple flesh and bark-like skin.

Sweet potatoes also come in different colors. The orange varieties have the most beta-carotene, and the purple ones have the most anthocyanins, a type of flavonoid believed to help prevent cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases. All are a source of vitamins C and B6, potassium and fiber.

6. Blueberries

Man holding fresh-picked blueberrie
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One of the few fruits native to North America, blueberries provide a lot of vitamins C and K, fiber and manganese, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service.

Research shows that blueberries may reduce the risk of women’s heart attacks by one-third, due to their plaque- and cholesterol-lowering properties, and they appear to increase insulin sensitivity in people with Type 2 diabetes.

7. Yellow and orange winter squash

Man cutting butternut squash
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The natural sweetness of winter squash is intensified by roasting, and its dense texture works well in casseroles, soups and stews. Bonus: You can roast and eat the seeds, too.

The vegetable is rich in potassium, and it’s also a source of protein, beta-carotene, lutein, vitamins C and B6, magnesium, potassium and fiber. If you’re diabetic, take heart: Squash has a low glycemic index and load, and it contains polysaccharides, a type of indigestible fiber that in animal studies has shown to help prevent blood sugar from going up after a meal.

8. Cooked spinach

Cooked spinach
Maren Winter /

As noted earlier, spinach is pretty darned good for you. But it’s better for you when it’s cooked, according to Consumer Reports. That’s because spinach has a lot of oxalic acid, which blocks your ability to get iron and calcium from this leafy green. But oxalic acid breaks down under high heat.

To get around this, Consumer Reports suggests blanching fresh spinach leaves in boiling water for 60 seconds, then plunging them into ice water for a few minutes. Drain and wrap in paper towels before refrigerating, then add the greens to soups, omelets, smoothies and any other dish you like.

9. Cooked carrots

Cooked carrots
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A carrot needs cooking in order to kick its cancer-fighting carotenoids into high gear. Consumer Reports cites a study from the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry that showed boiled carrots have a 14% higher concentration of carotenoids. Pan frying, on the other hand, caused a 13% decrease in carotenoids.

Carrots also are a good source of fiber, along with potassium and vitamin C.

10. Peaches, apricots and plums

Woman washing fruit in a kitchen sink
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These sweet, beautiful fruits pretty much sell themselves. They’re the essence of summer. As you indulge, know what a gift you’re giving to your body: antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and fiber.

A few per-serving specifics:

  • One peach provides 15% of your daily vitamin C needs, plus 2% or more of your recommended amount of vitamins A, E and K, iron, potassium, folate, magnesium and other minerals for one day.
  • One-half cup of apricots delivers more than 20% of your daily vitamin A and C needs, plus 2% to 9% of other nutrients such as iron, potassium, folate and calcium.
  • One plum has only 30 calories but delivers vitamins A and C, fiber and 1% of your daily iron needs.

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