Every year, cardiovascular disease (CVD) kills about 600,000 Americans prematurely.
And stroke – which is largely a cardiovascular disease – claims another 130,000 lives: a total of 730,000 lives lost.
Food and exercise make an unrivaled difference to cardiovascular health … and colorful fruits and veggies rank high as heart-protectors.
Berries abound in anthocyanins … the flavonoid-class pigments that color grapes and other red/purple-hued fruits and vegetables … as well as red/purple autumn leaves.
We've had prior indications that berry colors – and related flavanol compounds in cocoa and tea – can help keep brains, blood vessels, and hearts healthy, and reduce the risk of CVD, stroke, and heart attack.
The results of a recent Chinese clinical trial in people with high cholesterol levels indicated that anthocyanin supplements lowered their inflammation levels … an effect that should help block plaque formation by blunting the oxidation of cholesterol.
Now, British researchers have published a diet-health study that again links berries to heart-health benefits.
And a separate UK study suggests that berry-rich diets may help protect men from Parkinson's disease.
Berries linked to reduce heart attack risk
Diet-health epidemiological studies cannot prove cause-effect relationships between particular foods and specific health outcomes.
But when their results are consistent, this raises the odds that a real cause-effect relationship exists.
Those odds get even higher when ample lab evidence reveals a food's effects on our genes and immune responses, and suggests that it should enhance cardiovascular, brain, and overall health.
Such is the case with the extensive lab research into the flavonoid-type polyphenols abundant in berry, tea, and cocoa.
Almost uniformly, this evidence indicates that berry pigments exert beneficial influences on the body's gene-governed inflammation and oxidation controls.
Researchers from Britain's University of East Anglia and King's College London analyzed diet and health data collected from 1,898 women, whose average age was 46 (Jennings A et al. 2012).
The volunteers' answers to diet questionnaires allowed the UK team to calculate the women's total intakes of flavonoids, and key subclasses.
Those subclasses include anthocyanins – the flavonoid-type pigments in which berries abound – as well as flavanones, flavanols, polymers, flavonols, and flavones.
By comparing the women's diets to their health records, the scientists found that the women with the highest average intakes of anthocyanins had significantly lower blood pressure (systolic) and arterial pressure.
In addition, higher flavone intakes were linked to improved pulse wave velocity … a standard measure of arterial stiffness. (Stiff arteries harm cardiovascular health and raise several heart risks.)
Fortunately, the amounts of berries associated with these benefits were modest:
"The intakes of anthocyanins associated with these findings could be incorporated into the diet by the consumption of 1–2 portions of berries daily ...” (Jennings A et al. 2012)
To prove the cause-effect relationship, the authors called for more clinical trials:
"The findings highlight the need for more intervention trials on anthocyanins and anthocyanin-rich foods for the prevention and management of CVD [cardiovascular disease] because there have been limited previous randomized controlled trials for this subclass.” (Jennings A et al. 2012)
Do berries provide Parkinson's protection?
Parkinson's disease is a progressive neurological disease affecting about one million North Americans …notably, actor and Parkinson's activist Michael J. Fox.
Another 60,000 Americans get a Parkinson's diagnosis annually … and more cases go undetected. To date, drug therapies remain few and of limited efficacy.
Numerous lab studies – and a few clinical trials – suggest that berry flavonoids are good for brains.
According to research by a team from Harvard University and the University Of East Anglia (UEA), men who eat flavonoid-rich foods – such as berries, tea, apples and red wine – may significantly reduce their risk of developing Parkinson's disease.
The findings add to the growing body of evidence that flavonoids offer protection against a wide range of diseases including heart disease, hypertension, some cancers, and dementia.
Harvard-UK study links berries to reduced Parkinson's risk
This is the first study to link diets rich in flavonoids to protection of brain cells (neurons) against diseases such as Parkinson's.
The study entailed analysis of diet and health records from almost 130,000 male doctors (49,281) and female nurses (80,336), who were followed for 20 years.
After adjusting the results to account for age and lifestyle, the UK-Harvard team found that the men who ate the most flavonoids were 40 percent less likely to develop Parkinson's disease, compared with those who ate the least.
(No similar link between higher flavonoid intake and reduced Parkinson's disease risk was found in women.)
The research was led by Dr. Xiang Gao of Harvard School of Public Health, in collaboration with Professor Aedin Cassidy of the Norwich Medical School at UEA.
As Professor Cassidy said, "This is the first study … to suggest that a sub-class of flavonoids called anthocyanins may have neuroprotective effects.”
And Professor Gao noted that their results fit with prior findings: "Interestingly, anthocyanins and berry fruits, which are rich in anthocyanins, seem to be associated with a lower risk of Parkinson's disease in pooled analyses. Participants who consumed one or more portions of berry fruits each week were around 25 percent less likely to develop Parkinson's disease, relative to those who did not eat berry fruits.” (UEA 2012)
He drew an obvious conclusion: "Given the other potential health effects of berry fruits, such as lowering risk of hypertension as reported in our previous studies, it is good to regularly add these fruits to your diet.” (UEA 2012)
By the way, berries enjoy relatively low GI (glycemic index) values compared with other fruits, making them a good fruit choice, even (in moderation) for people with diabetes.
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