Want to preserve your mental edge as you age? Vegetables-particularly green, leafy ones—will do the trick if you eat three servings a day, new research shows.

According to Martha Clare Morris, associate professor at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, and lead author of the study, "People who consumed two or more vegetables a day had a 35% to 40% decrease in the decline in thinking ability over six years. That's the equivalent of being five years younger in age."

The Study

Morris's team studied 3,718 men and women 65 years of age or older who live in Chicago. "We used a complete food questionnaire of 139 different food items," Morris said. "We asked about their usual intake and assessed the frequency of intake." During the six-year study, the participants received at least two cognitive tests that measured their memory and thinking speed.

"By far, the association with a slower rate of decline was found in the group that ate high amounts of green, leafy vegetables," Morris said. Such foods included lettuce and tossed salad, spinach, kale and collards.

Everyday Tasks

Because the cognitive tests measured overall thinking ability, the benefits of eating vegetables may translate into an easier time with such everyday tasks as remembering phone numbers and names and balancing checkbooks, according to Morris.


Morris suspects that vegetables may help protect memory and thinking speed because they contain high amounts of vitamin E, an antioxidant that can help reduce the damage caused by free radicals, unstable oxygen molecules that can damage neurons in the brain and contribute to dementia.

"We had found in previous studies that vitamin E in food protected against cognitive decline and the development of Alzheimer's disease," she said.

"When we eat vegetables, we tend to put the good fats on them, such as an oil-based salad dressing on salads, healthy-fat mayonnaise on coleslaw, and healthy-fat margarine on vegetables," Morris said. "Such fats help us to absorb the vitamin E, and perhaps are also beneficial to the brain. So that's one plausible explanation of why vegetables are good for you."

The Findings On Fruit

The research also suggests that fruit consumption does not have the same benefits as vegetable consumption.

Morris's study found that high consumption of fruit had no effect on thinking ability. It's possible that some fruit may contain compounds that counteract antioxidants. Further studies are still needed to determine whether fruit is brain-protective, she said.

Dallas Anderson is program director for population studies in the Dementias of Aging Branch of the National Institute on Aging's Neuroscience and Neuropsychology of Aging Program. "It may be premature to discount the role of fruit consumption in maintaining cognitive health," he said, citing recent research showing that weekly consumption of three or more servings of fruit and vegetable juices was associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer's.

As for eating vegetables, Morris said it's too soon to say for sure that they actually preserve the brain from age-related decline. "But it's encouraging to see that it appears to slow the rate of decline," she said. "We know that eating vegetables is important for chronic diseases. So this might be one more reason why you should eat your vegetables."

Relief for Leg Cramps

Many of my patients over age 50 tell me that they have recurrent lower leg cramps, usually in the evening. Their calf muscles seem to tighten up into a knot. Stretching does not alleviate the pain, though massaging the calves often helps.

The culprit is usually mineral deficiencies. This can happen even if you're taking a multivitamin. The three most common deficiencies, in order, are magnesium, calcium and potassium. All three are involved in nerve and muscle contraction. Blood tests can detect these deficiencies, but the tests often are not accurate.

The first thing to do is to consume foods rich in these minerals. Magnesium is found in whole grains, legumes and green, leafy vegetables. Good sources of calcium include broccoli, collard greens, kelp, yogurt and milk (unless you're dairy sensitive). Potassium-rich foods include apples, bananas, oranges, tomatoes and potatoes.

However, many of my patients get the best results by taking a combination supplement. Take a calcium (500 mg/magnesium (250 mg) complex after dinner. For most people, this will resolve the problem within a day. If that doesn't help, a potassium deficiency may be the problem. Drink eight ounces of vegetable juice a day, such as low-sodium V8 juice.

Almonds May Improve Memory

In a recent study, mice with a disease similar to Alzheimer's were fed an almond-rich diet and fared better on memory tests than mice fed a diet without almonds. Almonds contain substances similar to those found in drugs used to treat Alzheimer's.

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