Eating more spinach and kale may help keep you cognitively fit, according to a small study from University of Illinois researchers.
The study, which included 60 adults aged 25 to 45, found that middle-aged participants with higher levels of lutein – a phytochemical in green leafy vegetables had neural responses that were more on par with younger individuals than with their peers.
Most other studies have focused on older adults, after there has already been a period of cognitive decline. The research team chose to focus on young to middle-aged adults to see whether there was a notable difference between those with higher and lower lutein levels.
Research has shown that this cognitive decline can start earlier than expected; some difference can even be noticed in the 30s.
If lutein can protect against cognitive decline, the researchers say we should encourage people to consume lutein-rich foods at a point in their lives when it has maximum benefit.
Lutein, which must be consumed through foods, accumulates in brain tissues, but also accumulates in the eye, which allows researchers to measure levels without relying on invasive techniques.
The Illinois researchers measured lutein in the study participants' eyes by having participants look into a scope and respond to a flickering light. Then, using electrodes on the scalp, the researchers measured neural activity in the brain while the participants performed a task that tested attention.
The neuro-electrical signature of older participants with higher levels of lutein looked much more like their younger counterparts than their peers with less lutein. People with more lutein were able to engage more cognitive resources to complete the task.
In this study the researchers focused on attention, but they also want to understand the effects of lutein on learning and memory.
How much lutein do you need?
Research into cognitive health and lutein intake is new, however, the phytochemical has been associated with protection from cataract and macular degeneration in numerous studies. Scientists speculate that an intake of 6 to 15 milligrams of lutein per day is optimal for eye health.
The best sources include kale (12 mg lutein per ½ cup cooked), spinach (10 mg per ½ cup cooked), Swiss chard (9.5 mg per ½ cup cooked), collard greens (6 mg per ½ cup cooked), green peas (2 mg per ½ cup cooked), broccoli, Romaine lettuce, Brussels sprouts, nectarines and oranges.
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