Nutrient found in spinach, kale and avocado ‘keeps the brain young’

People with higher levels of lutein – a nutrient found in vegetables such as spinach, kale and avocado – have ‘younger’ brains than their peers, according to a new clinical study published in the journal Frontiers in Ageing Neuroscience.

Researchers from the University of Illinois examined 60 adults between the ages of 25 and 45. They measured lutein levels in their 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.

They found that those with higher levels of lutein had neural responses that were more on par with younger individuals than with people their own age.

Anne Walk, the study’s lead author, said: ‘We want to understand how diet impacts cognition throughout the lifespan. If lutein can protect against decline, we should encourage people to consume lutein-rich foods at a point in their lives when it has maximum benefit.’

‘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. Lutein appears to have some protective role, since the data suggest that those with more lutein were able to engage more cognitive resources to complete the task.’

The researchers are next going to run intervention trials, which will aim to understand how increased dietary consumption of lutein may increase lutein in the eye, and how closely the levels relate to changes in cognitive performance.

Naiman Khan, who also worked on the paper, said: ‘Now there’s an additional reason to eat nutrient-rich foods such as green leafy vegetables, eggs and avocados. We know these foods are related to other health benefits, but these data indicate that there may be cognitive benefits as well. In this study we focused on attention, but we also would like to understand the effects of lutein on learning and memory. There’s a lot we are very curious about.’