Eating These Foods May Reduce Risk of Cognitive Decline


Key Takeaways

  • Foods high in a natural compound called flavonoids may be particularly good for brain health, a new study suggests.
  • Certain types of the compound could be even more useful, lowering your “brain age.”
  • You can boost the power of these foods by adding more lifestyle changes for brain health, like exercising and stress reduction.

If you're worried about your brain health as you age, there may be a simple solution that could boost your memory skills. Research shows people who eat a diet high in a naturally occurring compound called flavonoids may have up to 20% lower risk of cognitive decline as they age, according to a new study in the journal Neurology.

Over two decades, researchers tracked nearly 50,000 women and over 27,000 men with an average age of 51 when the study started. They discovered that those who ate higher amounts of flavonoid-rich foods tended to have better self-reported memory than those who ate low amounts.

“This [study] adds to evidence suggesting flavonoids are powerhouses when it comes to protecting cognitive function as you get older,” says study author Walter Willett, MD, professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University. “This is exciting, because adding foods like these are a simple change anyone can make, and it may have a profound impact in the long term.”

About the Study

The study also examined the potential effect of individual flavonoids, Dr. Willett says. Flavones—the kind of flavonoid found in some spices as well as yellow or orange fruits and vegetables—seemed to have the most effect on risk reduction.

Walter Willett, MD

You don’t need to be eating these foods for 20 years to get the benefits. Even if you start incorporating them now, you’ll have a protective advantage for brain health.

— Walter Willett, MD

In fact, the inclusion of flavones in a regular diet was linked to a 38% lower risk of cognitive decline. According to Dr. Willett, this reduction could equate to being 3 or 4 years younger in terms of brain health compared to those who don’t eat those foods.

Another type of flavonoid, known as anthocyanins, was also found to have a potent effect, with a 24% reduced risk of cognitive decline. Foods high in this flavonoid group have dark colors like red, purple, and blue. Some examples include blackberries, blueberries, cherries, cranberries, and eggplant.

People in the study who seemed at the lowest risk for cognitive issues tended to eat at least half a serving per day of foods high in flavones and anthocyanins. Most notable, Dr. Willett adds, is that there seemed to be a protective effect even if people started eating them later in the study.

“That means you don’t need to be eating these foods for 20 years to get the benefits,” he says. “Even if you start incorporating them now, you’ll have a protective advantage for brain health.”

Ripple Effect

Eating foods high in flavonoids doesn’t just help preserve your memory and other cognitive functions. In fact, the strategy can have a ripple effect because it reduces inflammation throughout the body—which is one of the main reasons these foods give the brain a boost, says Daniel Amen, MD, founder of Amen Clinics, and co-author of "The Brain Warrior’s Way."

Incorporating foods like these into your diet can offer a number of added benefits. For instance, they can help alleviate chronic pain, improve cardiovascular health, and support better gut health as well.

“What you eat plays a central role in how your brain functions, just as it does with every other part of your body,” Dr. Amen says. “Food can be healing or it can be toxic, depending on your choices.”

Stack Up Health-Promoting Habits

In addition to adding more antioxidant-rich foods into your diet, taking steps toward other lifestyle changes can make those nutritional shifts even more powerful, according to Scott Kaiser, MD, geriatrician, and director of geriatric cognitive health for Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in California.

Scott Kaiser, MD

Aging does cause loss of brain volume to some extent, but that should make you feel motivated instead of discouraged.

— Scott Kaiser, MD

“There’s a common misconception that cognitive decline is inevitable as you get older, but that’s not true,” Dr. Kaiser says. “Although there are some factors you can’t control, there are many that you can. Even if you have a higher genetic risk, meaningful lifestyle changes can help mitigate that.”

If you want to make some lifestyle changes to offset the cognitive decline, there are a number of things you can do. Dr. Kaiser suggests trying these brain-health habits:

  • Exercising regularly
  • Focusing on de-stressing
  • Getting quality sleep
  • Learning new skills
  • Making time for social interactions
  • Managing chronic conditions

“Aging does cause loss of brain volume to some extent, but that should make you feel motivated instead of discouraged,” says Kaiser. “You can replenish what’s lost and keep making new connections in the brain. There’s so much you can do to retain cognitive health, and it’s never too late or too early to start.”

What This Means For You

People who eat higher amounts of flavonoid-rich foods tend to experience slower cognitive decline. Adding even a small amount of flavonoid-rich foods like berries and red cabbage to your diet may provide brain-health benefits, especially as you age. Look for ways to incorporate about half of a serving into your diet a day for the best results. To further reduce cognitive decline you also can add brain-health habits to your daily routine like getting quality sleep, exercising, de-stressing, and learning new skills.

2 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Yeh TS, Yuan C, Ascherio A, Rosner B, Willett W, Blacker D. Long-term dietary flavonoid intake and subjective cognitive decline in US men and women. Neurology. 2021 Jul 28:10.1212/WNL.0000000000012454. doi:10.1212/WNL.0000000000012454. PMID:34321362.

  2. Ginwala R,Bhavsar R, Chigbu DGI, Jain P, Khan ZK. Potential role of flavonoids in treating chronic inflammatory diseases with a special focus on the anti-inflammatory activity of apigenin. Antioxidants. 2019;8(2):35. doi:10.3390/antiox8020035

By Elizabeth Millard, CPT, RYT
Elizabeth Millard is a freelance journalist specializing in health, wellness, fitness, and nutrition.