A Diet Low In This Key Nutrient Could Be Linked To Age-Related Memory Loss

Blackberries, cherries, apples and apricots might already be a part of your diet. If not, a new study might convince you to add them.

The study, led by researchers at Columbia University and published in the scientific journal PNAS last month, found that foods high in flavanols ― like the ones mentioned above ― could make your mind sharper as you age.

Flavanols (also known as flavan-3-ols) are a type of flavonoid, a broader class of natural substances that are found in fruits, vegetables, grains, flowers, tea and wine, and are hailed for their antioxidant and biochemical properties. Flavonoids are associated with health promoting effects, including potentially reducing the risk of cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and cardiovascular disease.

The study built on 15 years of prior cumulative research in mice and humans that found that flavanols can improve memory in mice, enhancing the growth of neurons and blood vessels in the hippocampus, a brain structure associated with memory and learning.

The new data on humans with a low-flavanol diet suggested that deficiency could be a driving factor in memory loss, especially for people over the age of 60. Although, the study wasn’t able to conclude whether low flavanol levels alone can cause poor memory performance, it noted that dietary patterns and quality may affect cognitive aging.

It’s also important to note that adding flavanols into a diet only improved memory in people with low-flavanol diets. People who were already consuming foods and drinks with high levels of flavanols were not affected by an increase in the nutrient.

Why flavonoids matter for cognitive function and how to tell if you have low levels

Nutrients in fruits and vegetables ― like flavanoids ― are associated with a lowered risk of chronic health conditions, including degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.

These nutrients can help to improve the health of brain regions associated with cognitive function. The nutrients can also promote neurogenesis, or the generation of new neurons ― a process that plays a role in preserving cognitive function and repairing damaged brain cells.

Flavonoids also have a positive effect on the brain due to increasing cerebral blood flow, Natalia Azad, a nutritional scientist and certified holistic health coach based in Los Angeles, told HuffPost.

“Improved blood flow to the brain is another benefit of consuming fruits and vegetables,” Azad said. “By enhancing blood circulation, these compounds ensure a steady supply of oxygen and nutrients to support optimal cognitive function and memory.”

On the other hand, a low-flavonoid diet can result in a weakened immune system, Cara Clark, a certified nutritionist based in Franklin, Tennessee, told HuffPost.

If cold or viral bugs seem to get you down every time they’re going around, it’s good to consider eating a higher flavonoid diet,” Clark said. “Considering flavonoids give food their color, the best way to gauge this is to eat a colorful array of food, including five different colors of fruits and vegetables a day in our eating plans or diet.”

Common dietary flavonoids

The Columbia study looked specifically at flavanols, but they are just one of six subclasses of flavonoids: anthocyanidins, flavan-3-ols, flavonols, flavanones, flavones and isoflavones.

“The nutrients released into the bloodstream from eating fruits and vegetables can impact your cognitive health and almost immediately if we are absorbing properly and our gut is healthy,” Clark said. “Certain antioxidants target inflammation, and decreasing inflammation can actually improve long-term cognitive health.”


Anthocyanidins and related compounds called anthocyanins are common pigments found in fruits and vegetables, specifically for colors like red, blue and purple. They have been studied for their antioxidative and antimicrobial activities that improve visual and neurological health and the prevention of diseases.

Berries, grapes, tropical fruits, leafy vegetables, grains and roots have high levels of anthocyanins. Here are a few:

  • Blackberries
  • Blood orange
  • Elderberries
  • Red, green and purple grapes
  • Red onions
  • Raspberries
  • Red cabbage
  • Strawberries
  • Red wine


The most common types of flavonoid consumed in the American diet are flavan-3-ols, also known as flavanols, which are found in various drinks, whole and processed foods, and herbal remedies and supplements. Flavan-3-ols affect food quality and appearance through color, bitterness, sourness and sweetness.

Increasing the amount of flavan-3-ols in your diet can help improve blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar. A few examples of foods include:

  • Red apples
  • Apricots
  • Dark chocolate
  • Black, oolong, white and green tea


Like other flavonoids, flavonols may be a potential neuroprotective agent against diseases such as Parkinson’s disease.

In addition, foods that contain flavonols also contain “essential vitamins, minerals and dietary fiber, which are crucial for optimal brain function,” Azad said. “B vitamins, including folate, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12 found in leafy greens and legumes, are particularly important for maintaining memory and cognitive abilities.” Some foods with flavonols include:

  • Blueberries
  • Broccoli
  • Chili peppers
  • Kale
  • Parsley
  • Scallions
  • Spinach


This important subgroup of flavonoids are present in vegetables and flowers. They can be found in:

  • Celery
  • Parsley
  • Red peppers
  • Chamomile
  • Mint
  • Ginkgo biloba


Flavanones are known for their anti-inflammatory properties, including reducing redness, swelling and pain in the body. These can be found in:

  • Grapefruit
  • Lemon
  • Orange
  • Pomelo


These plant compounds may protect against age-related diseases, including cardiovascular disease, bone disease, hormone-dependent cancer and loss of cognitive function. Some foods that contain these are:

In general, Clark said, fruits and vegetables are important to a well-balanced diet and can help prevent disease.

“My personal belief ― as well as my nutrition philosophy ― puts a huge focus on incorporating fruits and vegetables to provide essential vitamins and more to improve immune function, cognitive function, decrease inflammation, improve lymphatic system and even decrease toxic load,” Clark said. “We don’t utilize them enough.”