Blueberries are both delicious and nutritious. I love them baked into a crusty pie and embedded like hidden treasure within a puffy muffin. It was many years later than I learned just how beneficial these small purplish fruit spheres are for our bodies – and our minds.
Scientists love blueberries, too, it would seem, based on a large amount of study being devoted to how they influence animal health. Entire careers have been dedicated to unlocking the secrets contained within these compact orbs.
Like many fruits, blueberries are rich in antioxidants that fight free radicals to reduce the ravages of aging. Oxidants are found literally everywhere and are inescapable. They are molecules (a group of two or more atoms, the smallest units of matter) produced both inside the body and the environment that can react with other cellular molecules in the body such as protein (from meat, dairy, and nuts), DNA (molecular genetic codes) and lipids (fats).
Reactive oxidants damage other cellular molecules with which they react, inflicting damage and causing disease and inflammation.
As its name suggests, an antioxidant is a molecule that defends the body’s cellular molecules against harmful oxidants, intercepting them before they can react with the body’s cellular macromolecules (a very large molecule) which protects the body from cellular degradation.
Oxidative stress is an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in your body. Free radicals are molecules with unpaired electrons (negatively-charged subatomic particles) that “steal” (attract) electrons from other cells, causing damage and contributing to many diseases.
Research on animals has shown that oxidative stress can accelerate the brain’s aging process and have a negative effect on brain function. Antioxidants in blueberries appear to be linked to parts of the brain that are key for intelligence. They have been shown to improve cell signaling in aging neurons (nerve cells).
Blueberries get their color from colored water-soluble pigments called anthocyanins which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
A study on flavinoids, especially anthocyanidins, that ran for six years, between 1995 and 2001, and tracked cognitive function (thinking ability) in over 16,000 people aged 70 years and older, found that a diet that included blueberries and strawberries was associated with delayed mental aging by up to 2.5 years.
A 2010 study examined improved memory in nine older adults with early memory changes who took a blueberry supplement. After 12 weeks, improved paired associate learning and word list recall were observed. Testing also suggested reduced symptoms of depression. Blood glucose (sugar) levels also declined. The scientists concluded that “moderate-term blueberry supplementation can confer neurocognitive benefit.”
Polyphenolic compounds found in blueberries protect the body from ultraviolet radiation damage and infectious germs. They also strengthen blood vessels and help protect the heart. Diets high in polyphenols have been linked with preventing cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, osteoporosis, and neurodegenerative diseases.
In 2015, researchers wanted to find out if their hunch that berry polyphenols (beneficial disease-fighting compounds found in plants, including flavonoids and phenolic acid) decreased stress signaling, increased neurogenesis (the process by which new neurons are formed in the brain), and increased signals involved in learning and memory in aged animals.
The lab rats fed the berry diets displayed enhanced motor performance and improved cognition, specifically working memory. The scientists noted that additional as-yet-unidentified mechanisms appear to be boosting working memory performance even higher.
A 2016 study tested children with an anthocyanin-rich blueberry treatment thought to have a beneficial impact on cognitive outcomes, positively influence cognition, and as a preventative and treatment for dementia in adults and laboratory animals. The experimental group of 7-10-year-olds drank a beverage that contained wild blueberry powder.
Cognitive improvements were found in the blueberry-consuming children who were evaluated on verbal memory, word recognition, response interference, response inhibition, and levels of processing before and after drinking the blueberry beverage.
study “Dietary interventions with blueberry” was performed in a 2018 study on older adults. Improvements in some aspects of cognition were seen.
Experimental psychologist Barbara Shukitt-Hale has been investigating blueberries for over 20 years. By chance, her lab in Boston, Massachusetts, was next door to that of Tufts researcher James Joseph who popularized the idea that fruit colors relate to health benefits. Shukitt-Hale said of blueberries:
“I think they’re one of the healthiest fruits. But eating a wide range of fruits and vegetables, that’s your best bet.”
Disease-fighting, anti-aging blueberries add color and flavor to the foods we eat. Enjoy them fresh or frozen, raw or cooked. In moderation and over time, your body and mind could reap significant health gains.