Eating cranberries could "significantly" help improve memory and brain function, as well as lower 'bad' cholesterol', according to a University of East Anglia (UEA) study.
Researchers hope their findings will help prevent neurodegenerative diseases like dementia. This follows a report that one in four show signs for years before being diagnosed with the condition, which is associated with an ongoing decline of brain function.
"Dementia is expected to affect around 152 million people by 2050," says Dr David Vauzour from UEA's Norwich Medical School. "There is no known cure, so it is crucial that we seek modifiable lifestyle interventions, such as diet, that could help lessen disease risk and burden."
Past studies have shown that higher dietary flavonoid (natural substances found mainly in fruit and veg) intake is associated with slower rates of cognitive decline and dementia, while food rich in anthocyanins and proanthocyanidins, which give berries their red, blue, or purple colour, have been found to improve cognition.
“Cranberries are rich in these micronutrients and have been recognised for their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties," explains Dr Vauzour. His team analysed the the benefits of consuming of a cup of them every day among 50 to 80-year-olds.
The study, which ran for 12 weeks, specifically investigated the impact on brain function and cholesterol among the 60 cognitively health participants.
Half of the participants consumed freeze-dried cranberry powder, equivalent to 100g of fresh cranberries, daily, while the other half consumed a placebo.
The study is one of the first to examine these berries specifically and their long-term impact on cognition and brain health in humans, according to UEA.
The results unearthed that consuming cranberries significantly improved the participants' memory of everyday events (visual episodic memory), neural functioning and delivery of blood to the brain (brain perfusion).
“We found that the participants who consumed the cranberry powder showed significantly improved episodic memory performance in combination with improved circulation of essential nutrients such as oxygen and glucose to important parts of the brain that support cognition – specifically memory consolidation [long-term memory formation] and retrieval," summarises Vauzour.
“The cranberry group also exhibited a significant decrease in LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol levels, known to contribute to atherosclerosis – the thickening or hardening of the arteries caused by a build-up of plaque in the inner lining of an artery."
Watch: Cranberries linked to improved heart health
Their findings support the idea that cranberries can improve vascular health and may in part contribute to the improvement in brain perfusion and cognition, with Vauzour describing the research as an "important step" in the field.
“The findings of this study are very encouraging, especially considering that a relatively short 12-week cranberry intervention was able to produce significant improvements in memory and neural function,” he added.
“This establishes an important foundation for future research in the area of cranberries and neurological health.”