Healing Kitchen

Can Foods Actually Reverse Aging?
Balance, coordination, and short-term memory are some of the things we begin to lose as we age. Amazingly, a new study suggests we can not only slow, but perhaps actually reverse, these signs of aging with a simple food: the blueberry. Although the study was done on rats, these animals are close enough to people in genetic makeup for scientists to be actually excited by the results.

Anti-aging antioxidants
This study, which was published in the Journal of Neuroscience (9/15/99) was done by researchers at the U.S. Agriculture Department's Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston. The Tufts team separated 40 rats into four groups: those fed blueberry, spinach, or strawberry extracts and a control group that didn't receive a supplement.

Blueberries, spinach, and strawberries were studied because they are high in antioxidants (some of which give these foods their distinctive colors). Other studies have shown that antioxidant-rich foods may lower your risk of cancer and heart disease and perhaps slow aging by neutralizing naturally occurring molecules called free radicals. In excess, free radicals can harm cells. The process, called oxidative stress, is also implicated in the development of many degenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. "As you age you either have more free radicals or fewer antioxidants, or a combination of these," says study coauthor Dr. Barbara Shukitt-Hale, Ph.D. "So you need antioxidants to quench these free radicals." Antioxidants appear to make cell membranes more fluid, which, among other things, eases the flow of nutrients into and out of cells.

Balance beam: 11!
All three foods--blueberries, spinach, and strawberries--improved short-term memory, as assessed by the animals' ability to navigate a maze. However, only blueberries enhanced balance and coordination as well. It is known that rats begin to lose motor skills at age 12 months, and by 19 months their ability to maintain their balance on a narrow rod has declined from a peak of 13 seconds to 5 seconds. In previous studies, antioxidants slowed aging when rats were fed dietary supplements at age 6 months. In this most recent study, the rats were fed the blueberries at 19 months, the equivalent of age 65 to 70 in humans. After eight weeks, the blueberry-fed rats' rod balancing skills actually increased--from 5 to 11 seconds, suggesting an age-reversing benefit.

Better than blueberries
The researchers aren't sure which specific compounds in blueberries give them their punch, but they suspect that other foods may provide age-reversing benefits. Prunes and kale, for instance, are also extremely high in antioxidants but have not yet been tested. The Tufts center is also sponsoring studies on vitamin E, aspirin, and B vitamins.

Suggested dose: Further studies in people are needed. Still, according to Dr. Shukitt-Hale, just half a cup of blueberries may help keep our mental and motor skills sharp.

Can I take a pill?
Although this study used a specially prepared blueberry extract, no blueberry supplements or extracts are on the market yet. A suitable alternative may be bilberry (40 mg 3 times a day), a European relative of the American blueberry. It is preferable to choose a bilberry extract which is standardized to contain 25% anthocyanosides (potent antioxidants found in the fruit).

Author: the WholeHealthMD Advisor
Date Published: 01/14/2000
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