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Experts say the compounds have anti-inflammatory effects that can help with heart health, cancer risk, and brain health. Getty Images
  • Researchers say flavonoids found in fruits, vegetables, chocolate, tea, and wine may help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
  • They report that study participants who consumed the most flavonoids had a 48 percent lower chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Experts say a healthy diet, including foods with flavonoids, as well as lifestyle factors like exercise and sleep can help reduce dementia risk.

Flavonoids may sound like a kind of movie theater candy, or perhaps characters in a video game.

In reality, they’re a component of some foods that can have an important impact on your health.

In a study published last week in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition researchers said people who eat higher amounts of flavonoid-rich foods such as berries, apples, and tea were less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

The study involved 2,800 participants who were 50 years and older.

In it, researchers reported that people who consumed smaller amounts of the flavonoid-rich foods were two to four times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s and related dementias over a 20-year time span.

In another study published in late January in the journal Neurology, researchers also said that consuming flavonoids might help fight the advancement of Alzheimer’s disease.

Flavonoids are polyphenolic compounds found in fruits like apples and pears and vegetables like spinach and kale, as well as chocolate, tea, and wine.

In the study, researchers concluded that higher dietary intakes of flavonoids and their subclass of flavonols might be associated with a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Specifically, of the 921 study participants, those who consumed the most flavonoids had a 48 percent lower chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

A study published last summer reported that flavonoid consumption may improve heart health and reduce cancer risk, but the January study was the first research to show these compounds may also help brain health in people.

Dr. Thomas Holland, the study’s lead author and an instructor in the department of internal medicine at Rush Medical College in Chicago, said he was motivated to begin the study after reviewing findings by Martha Clare Morris, ScD, creator of the Mediterranean and Dash Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) diet.

“We started to talk about what else in food can help brain health,” Holland told Healthline.

As soon as the evidence of the flavonoid consumption began to show, he said, “We wanted to delve even further. We knew we were onto something.”

The study results are encouraging but not surprising, says Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RDN, a dietitian and wellness nutrition services consultant at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute in Ohio.

“(Flavonoids) have been found in multiple strong studies to have an anti-inflammatory impact on health,” Kirkpatrick told Healthline.

“The brain-related benefits seen in this study shows how powerful flavonoids can be to helping one not just live long, but live well. The brain is essential for this equation,” she said.

Foods richest in flavonoids include apples, pears, and spinach, but many more have a wealth of the compounds as well.

Holland says the findings have fueled him — along with his co-authors — to dig deeper. He’d love to see a follow-up lifestyle study on the topic as well as what he calls the “gold standard”: an intervention trial.

At the Alzheimer’s Association, the study results were met with interest and excitement but caution as well.

“This study adds to our understanding of which elements of a healthy diet may be important in reducing dementia risk,” Keith Fargo, PhD, director of scientific programs and outreach at the Alzheimer’s Association, told Healthline.

“Flavonols may be one of those elements. However, at this point, people should not put too much stock in specific nutrients — including subsets of flavonols — for reducing dementia risk until more research is done. Rather, they should focus on eating an overall healthy diet,” he said.

Fargo says this kind of research is vital, as more than 5 million people in the United States are now living with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia.

“There is a pressing need to test the effectiveness of a healthy lifestyle regimen to reduce risk of cognitive decline in a large and diverse population,” he said.

The Alzheimer’s Association has launched a 2-year clinical trial called the U.S. Study to Protect Brain Health Through Lifestyle Intervention to Reduce Risk, known as U.S. POINTER.

In addition to this study, Fargo says, research reported at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in July 2019 found that adopting healthy lifestyle modifications, including a well-balanced diet, might counteract a person’s genetic risk for Alzheimer’s disease.

“This is exciting research because even though people can’t change some things — like their genes — most people do have some control over healthy habits,” he said.

Kirkpatrick recommends everyone, regardless of their dementia risk, look at not just flavonoid consumption but a person’s diet as a whole.

She also suggests baby steps.

“Small changes go a long way. In fact, one study on flavonoid consumption showed that simply having moderate consumption helped to reduce mortality from all-cause-, cardiovascular-, and cancer-related mortality. I often will tell my patients if you want to get more benefit in your diet, aim for five colors a day. Flavonoids are abundant in colorful plants, so doing so will help increase your consumption of them.

“A handful of blueberries, some beet chips, a kale or spinach salad, half a sweet potato and some dark-colored beans. That’s five. Many studies show that just a few servings of vegetables can have significant impact on reducing the risk of disease,” Kirkpatrick said.

Holland says he hopes the study results encourage people to eat more flavonoids.

“Our toolbox has to be filled with as many (natural weapons) as possible,” he said. “Now we know adding flavonoids to that toolbox is a smart move.”

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