Carrots, Good for the Mind's Eye

Compound found in carrots may promote brain-function

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

Remember to eat your carrots, so you can… well, remember. New research shows compund promotes memory function--and not just for rabbits.

A new study appears in the Journal of Nutrition shows that a diet rich in the plant compound luteolin promotes memory function by directly inhibiting the release of inflammatory molecules in the brain. Luteolin is commonly found in carrots, peppers, celery, peppermint, rosemary and chamomile.

Inflammation in the brain is a key contributor to memory problems associated with aging. Luteolin acts to inhibit the molecules (cytokines) that induce so-called sickness behavior (sleepiness, appetite loss) via inflammation, which also plays a role in age-related memory problems. 

Rodney Johnson, University of Illinois animal sciences professor and director of the school’s Division of Nutritional Sciences, led the study. He said researchers found that during normal aging, an excessive level of inflammatory cytokines are produced.

“We think this contributes to cognitive aging and is a predisposing factor for the development of neurodegenerative diseases,” Johnson said.

The good news is that a healthy diet with some of the aforementioned vegetables, plants and roots could potentially reduce age-related inflammation and result in better brain function.

Carrots aren’t your only natural defense against age-related memory loss, however.

 You might try walking, also. New research published in an online issue of Neurology® suggests that walking six miles a week might protect brain size and preserve memory.

“Brain size shrinks in late adulthood, which can cause memory problems,” said study author Kirk I. Erickson, PhD, with the University of Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh. “Our results should encourage well-designed trials of physical exercise in older adults as a promising approach for preventing dementia and Alzheimer's disease.”

If walking isn’t your thing and you take medication for hypertension (high blood pressure), you might still be in luck – at least as far as cognitive-retention is concerned.

A recent study in the Archives of Internal Medicine shows that some blood pressure medicines – specifically ACE inhibitors that affect the brain by crossing the blood-brain barrier – might reduce the inflammation that can lead to the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Hypertension in itself is a major risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia (a broad term used to describe conditions that cause brain-function loss).

A healthy diet and exercise also help combat high cholesterol, which, studies have shown, increases the risk of developing Alzheimer’s for people in their middle ages.

“Our study shows that even moderately high cholesterol levels in your 40s puts people at greater risk for Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia decades later,” said the study's senior author Rachel Whitmer, Ph.D., a research scientist and epidemiologist at the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research in Oakland.

So the best answer to help ward off age-related memory loss naturally may be to grab a carrot or celery stalk and head outside for a brisk walk. (And guess what, those options may just improve your cholesterol and blood pressure numbers, too!)

Just don’t forget to tie your shoes before you head out. 

Review Date: 
October 15, 2010