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Feed Your Brain | Summer 2006 Out Here Magazine

Fruits, veggies may protect your memory

By Bethanne Black

Photography by John Walker

The key to preventing Alzheimer's disease may lie right inside your refrigerator door. A diet high in antioxidant-rich foods such as fruits and vegetables may help protect the brain as it ages, researchers say.

An exact cause of Alzheimer's disease remains unknown, but amyloid plaque, a waxy substance that builds up in the brain, may play a role, research suggests. Amyloid plaque causes two key processes to occur: oxidation and inflammation.

"I call oxidative stress and inflammation the evil Gemini twins," says Dr. James Joseph, a health and nutrition researcher at Tufts University in Boston. "Every major disease that increases with aging such as heart disease, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's disease is related to oxidative stress and inflammation."

Oxidative stress and inflammation are caused by free radicals in the environment, some of which are pollution, cigarette smoke, and radiation. Free radicals bond with other tissues and cells in your body.

Joseph compares free radicals to a friendly dog. "But your dog has muddy paws, and you're wearing a nice white suit. The dog wants to bond with you, like free radicals want to bond with tissue and membranes in the body," he says. "This bonding results in damaging oxidative stress."

As we age, other brain changes occur. For example, cells in the aging brain lose some ability to communicate with each other.

"Compare this communication loss to making a call on your cell phone. The phone is on, you dial a number but receive a message that says 'call failed.' If there is a defect in any part of the signaling pathway such as the tower or the satellite, the call fails," Joseph says.

Fortunately, eating an antioxidant-rich diet can protect the brain from the wear and tear of aging, so all circuits are firing. Antioxidants are disease-fighting chemicals that protect the body from damage caused by free radicals.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are antioxidant-rich foods. They fall into four main color groups:

  • Red foods — tomatoes, red peppers, strawberries, and red or pink grapefruit. <
  • Blue/purple foods — grapes, Concord grape juice, blueberries, purple onions, eggplant, and cabbage.
  • Yellow/orange foods — carrots, pineapples, bananas, tangerines, oranges, and other citrus fruits.
  • Green foods — spinach, kale, broccoli, collard greens, and other deep green vegetables.

"Let color be your guide," Joseph advises. "The key is to mix different foods colors, because each color group complements each other and has more benefits when combined and eaten together."

Don't worry if you don't typically reach for fruits and vegetables.

"Just make small changes each day by choosing a variety of colorful foods," Joseph says. "Sample food from different color groups at each meal, and before you know it, you will have a good balance of color in your diet."

Bethanne Black, of Atlanta, is a freelance journalist who specializes in health care.