LESLIE BECK – Published Monday, Nov. 03 2014, 2:52 PM EST
If oranges, apples, berries and onions – foods rich in flavonoids – aren’t part of your regular diet, consider adding them to your menu. According to researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston, doing so will help you remain healthy, mentally sharp and physically active when you’re older. For women, at least.
Flavonoids are bioactive compounds found in fruits, vegetables, legumes, tea, chocolate and red wine. The 4,000-plus different flavonoids found in foods can be divided into subclasses; those we most commonly consume include anthocyanins, flavonols, flavones and flavanones.
The many benefits attributed to a flavonoid-rich diet include a lower risk of stroke, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and certain cancers as well as better cognitive performance.
For the study, published last week in the online version of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers set out to determine if women who consumed plenty of flavonoids in their 50s maintained good health and well-being in their 70s. Among 13,818 women, those who consumed the most – versus the least – flavonoids at midlife had significantly greater odds of being a “healthy ager,” even after accounting for diet quality, physical activity, smoking, education and family history.
Women were considered healthy agers if, at aged 70 or older, they were free of major chronic diseases (including cancer, heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, kidney failure, Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis) and had no cognitive impairment, physical disabilities or mental-health problems. The remaining women were classified as “usual agers.”
When it came to food sources of flavonoids, a regular intake of oranges and onions (at least five servings a week versus less than one per month) was linked to a greater likelihood of healthy aging. Eating berries at least twice a week compared with less than once was also protective.
As powerful antioxidants, flavonoids do their work in the body by preventing damage caused by free radicals, unstable molecules that can harm cells. Cumulative free radical damage is implicated in aging, memory decline, depression and many chronic diseases.
Flavonoids also decrease inflammation, relax blood vessels and help prevent blood clots that could lead to heart attack or stroke. As well, flavonoids have been shown to activate the brain’s natural house-cleaning process, helping remove toxins and other compounds that can interfere with cognitive function.
A flavonoid-rich diet may help you live more healthily as you age, but other foods are important, too. Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, the best sources of antioxidants, has consistently been tied to good health. While many fruits and vegetables deliver flavonoids, many are also excellent sources of other antioxidants such as vitamins C and E and beta-carotene.
Include 7 to 10 servings (combined) in your daily diet. One serving is equivalent to one medium-sized fruit, ½ cup chopped fruit or berries, ¼ cup dried fruit (unsweetened), ½ cup of cooked or raw vegetables, one cup of salad greens or ½ cup of 100-per-cent vegetable or fruit juice. (Limit intake of fruit juice to one serving a day.)
Oily fish, flax and chia seeds, avocado, walnuts, pecans, cashews hazelnuts, olives and olive oil contain healthy fats that dampen inflammation, a major contributor to age-related disease.