Adding cranberries to your diet has been known to offer several health benefits, from reducing inflammation and improving heart health to maintaining a healthy digestive system. But new research suggests adding this fruit to your diet year-round can have even more advantages, which include improving memory and brain function, warding off dementia and lowering bad cholesterol.
Researchers from the University of East Anglia (UEA) studied the effects of eating one cup of cranberries a day for 12 weeks among 60 individuals between 50 to 80 years old. They found consuming cranberries significantly improved the participants’ memory of everyday events (visual and episodic memory), neural functioning and delivery of blood to the brain—along with a significant decrease in “bad” cholesterol levels (LDL).
“These findings are, however, certainly encouraging that sustained intake of cranberry over a 12-week period produced significant improvements in memory and neural function in older adults who were cognitively healthy,” David Vauzour, PhD, lead researcher and senior research fellow at the Norwich Medical School University of East Anglia, said in the study.
He added that because dementia is expected to affect around 153 million people by 2050 and no known cure is available, it’s crucial “we seek modifiable lifestyle interventions, such as diet, that could help lessen disease risk and burden.”
How do cranberries improve memory and prevent dementia?
As stated by Vauzour, foods like berries are rich in anthocyanins (a type of pigment found in plants) and proanthocyanidins (which give fruits or flowers their red, blue or purple colors), which have been found to improve cognition. Both compounds belong to a subclass of flavonoids that have antioxidant effects, which help the body fight off unstable molecules, called free radicals, that can damage cells and cause illness.
“Cranberries contain high levels of proanthocyanidins (PACs), which may reduce inflammation and inhibit the formation of amyloid plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease,” Reda Elmardi CSCS, a registered dietician and certified nutritionist, told SeniorsMatter. “Cranberries are also known to increase blood flow to the brain, which can enhance learning and memory.”
In addition, the fruit contains anti-inflammatory substances as well as vitamin C, potassium and calcium, Brittany Lubeck, MS, RD, a nutritional consultant, told SeniorsMatter. She added they have also been found to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anticancer, antibacterial and antiviral effects, mostly due to their polyphenol activity (which helps fight disease).
“Any food that has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties would be a great choice for seniors,” she said. “While antioxidants help ward off potentially harmful free radicals in the body, anti-inflammatory substances help reduce inflammation, a common factor in older adults, throughout the body.”
What are other health benefits of cranberries?
Experts note that cranberries provide several other health benefits:
- Reduce the risk of urinary tract and bladder infections
- Lower cholesterol levels
- Prevent cancer
- Improve vision
- Prevent kidney stones
- Reduce Alzheimer’s risk
- Prevent gum disease
- Alleviate prostatitis
“Cranberries help fight urinary tract infections by keeping harmful bacteria from infecting your bladder; they reduce bad cholesterol, increase good cholesterol and prevent blood clots,” Elmardi said. “Cranberries also contain Vitamin A, which reduces the risk of cataracts and oxalates—which helps prevent calcium from forming in your urine.”
How many cranberries should I be consuming?
As the study suggests, one cup of cranberries every day for 12 weeks is all it takes to improve memory and neurological function in older adults. However, while it’s unknown if the same positive results will occur in neural function with less than one cup of daily cranberries, Lubeck said, more than one cup would most likely provide benefits.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the recommended serving size for cranberries is 100 grams or one cup, which is the same amount used in the study. If your loved one has diabetes or has been told to watch your sugar intake, however, it’s important to know how much sugar is in cranberries before you eat them.
“Staying within 1.5 to 2 cups of fruit a day limit is generally a good idea to avoid crowding out other beneficial foods or food groups,” said Kristian Morey, RD, LDN, clinical dietician at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. “If someone has a specific health concern like diabetes, it’s important to factor the sugars in a one-cup equivalent of cranberries into the total dietary picture; consulting with your health care provider would be a good step as well.”
Based on Dietary Guidelines, older adults should drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration and to help with the digestion of food and absorption of nutrients. In addition to water, choosing unsweetened beverages such as 100% fruit or vegetable juice can support fluid intake to prevent dehydration while also helping to achieve food group recommendations.
What are some ways to incorporate cranberries into my diet?
Beyond eating whole cranberries, there are other unique ways to incorporate the fruit into your daily diet or a loved one’s daily diet:
- Mix cranberries into yogurt, oatmeal, salads and soups
- Add frozen cranberries to a smoothie or other beverage
- Use cranberries to make a jam or sauce
- Add cranberries to baked goods, like granola, bread, cookies and pies
- Drink unsweetened cranberry juice
- Consume reduced-sugar dried cranberries or unsweetened cranberry juice
“Cranberries (or any food, for that matter) is not a magic food that will drastically improve health concerns,” Lubeck said. “While they are certainly beneficial and good for your health, the best thing you can do is incorporate cranberries into an already well-balanced and varied diet. This will ensure you are obtaining all the wonderful benefits of food!”