PhotoIf you're in your 50s or 60s and are concerned about staying mentally sharp as you age, you might consider adding blueberries and strawberries to your diet. A new study suggests the flavonoids in them slow cognitive decline by two and a half years.

The study, published in the medical journal Annals of Neurology, say increasing your consumption of flavonoids have the potential to reduce inflammation in the body. The researchers believe that stress and inflammation contribute to cognitive impairment and that increasing consumption of flavonoids could mitigate the harmful effects. This isn't the first study to suggest the compound found in berries is good for the brain, but researchers say it's much larger and comprehensive that previous efforts.

Senior population growing quickly

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, elderly Americans — those 65 years of age and older — increased by 15 percent between 2000 and 2010, faster than the total U.S. population, which saw a 9.7 percent increase during the same time period.

"As the U.S. population ages, understanding the health issues facing this group becomes increasingly important," said Dr. Elizabeth Devore with Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston, Mass. "Our study examined whether greater intake of berries could slow rates of cognitive decline."

The research team used data from the Nurses' Health Study—a cohort of 121,700 female, registered nurses between the ages of 30 and 55 who completed health and lifestyle questionnaires beginning in 1976. Since 1980 participants were surveyed every four years regarding their frequency of food consumption. Between 1995 and 2001, cognitive function was measured in 16,010 subjects over the age of 70 years, at 2-year intervals. Women included in the present study had a mean age of 74 and mean body mass index of 26.

Findings show that increased consumption of blueberries and strawberries appear to slow cognitive decline in older women. A greater intake of anthocyanidins and total flavonoids was also associated with reduce cognitive degeneration.

Slowed cognitive aging

Researchers observed that women who had higher berry intake delayed cognitive aging by up to 2.5 years. The authors caution that while they did control for other health factors in the modeling, they cannot rule out the possibility that the preserved cognition in those who eat more berries may be also influenced by other lifestyle choices, such as exercising more.

Flavonoids found in berries have recently been touted for other health benefits. A 2011 study found they are effective in reducing the risk of Parkinson's disease. A 2006 study found blueberries, in particular, are an effective mood enhancer.

Just keep in mind that it's always best to eat the fresh fruit itself and not rely on packaged extracts or supplements. In 2005 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned 29 manufacturers of berry supplements about their health claims.

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