Simple Snack or ‘Superfood’? Here’s what credible, peer-reviewed scientific studies actually show about the link between berries and brain health or dementia prevention.
Berries aren’t just a delicious cereal topping or perfect midday snack: Every few months, news outlets and websites pick up on new research into the link between this “superfood” and its potential to boost brain health: “Half-cup of blueberries a day could keep dementia away;” “The small fruit that could cut your risk of dementia;” “This fruit could help ward off dementia.” Meanwhile, the drug store’s supplements aisle is full of supplements made from berries, with labels touting their memory-improving potential.
Where did this idea that berries can help boost our brain health — and even prevent dementia — come from? And how much of it is based in credible science? Let’s take a closer look.
Berries and the brain: What does the data say?
Now, there’s some science to back up the value of berries — from blueberries, blackberries, strawberries to acai; from lingonberries to pomegranate — to our brain health. For example, they’re part of a Mediterranean-style diet, which research shows may lower one’s dementia risk.
They also contain antioxidants — including flavonoids, which are being studied for their potential to reduce dementia risk — and which have been extensively studied in animal models of Alzheimer’s. Early human studies show these nutrients may lead to small improvements in memory for middle-aged and older adults, but it’s complicated: They’re found in many different foods, so, at least for now, it’s not possible to prove the benefits of berries alone.
Meanwhile, in animal studies, the link between berries and healthier cells in Alzheimer’s brains have been encouraging, pointing to the possibility that these nutrients have the potential to have an impact on Alzheimer’s dementia. This, too, needs much more research to be fully understood. But in the meantime, some have jumped to the conclusion that, because these nutrients are helpful in animal studies, berries themselves might have the power to help stave off dementia in humans.
So, what do human studies of berries and brain health actually show?
Research so far indicates that, indeed, berries may give the brain a boost, both in cognitively healthy older adults, and in those with mild cognitive impairment. For example, two randomized, controlled trials that examined the benefits of berry supplements for older adults found that supplements were linked to improved aspects of memory and other cognitive function.
Here’s what those studies didn’t find, however: So far, the research overall is scant, and of the couple high-quality studies that do exist, there are no credible, peer-reviewed, large scale studies that have directly measured the impact of berries on dementia prevention in humans. Meanwhile, berry-inspired therapies and human studies based on antioxidant treatments have repeatedly failed.
It’s also important to remember that in the small number of high-quality studies available on berries and the brain, participants didn’t eat real blueberries — rather they took blueberry-based dietary supplements, since those are easier to measure in a lab setting. And, the likelihood those participants, who were observed for just a few months, might one day develop dementia wasn’t tested. That’s a process that would take years. So to say berries (which weren’t eaten in these studies) prevent dementia (which wasn’t measured in these studies), is quite a leap!
If the studies focused on supplements instead of real berries, then should I be taking berry supplements?
The distance of that leap hasn’t stopped supplements makers from packaging and selling berry-based supplements for brain health. The berry-based supplement market was worth more than $1 billion worldwide as of 2020, and that number continues to rise. However, the supplement industry in the U.S. is notoriously under-regulated, and many of its health claims go unchecked. Some supplements have even been found to contain undeclared or illegal ingredients — ingredients that could do more harm than good. If you’re considering buying supplements or powders to increase your intake, keep in mind that many of the health claims are unproven.
So, what can berries do for my brain health?
There are things about berries that are pretty super, so berry fans out there, keep it up. These sweet, super snackable fresh fruits are healthy, and a great addition to a well-rounded Mediterranean-style diet — alongside nuts, seeds, legumes, vegetables, whole grains, olive oil and fish. This diet, which isn’t all about one “superfood” but leans into many of them, has been shown to improve brain health and to reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s and related dementias.
On their own, however, berries may have great potential in animal studies, but there’s still much, much more to learn about the role they play — if any — in truly preventing dementia.