Walnut consumption is linked to better memory and cerebral blood flow

four walnuts thrown into the water

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Walnuts can be a useful addition to the diet of those who want to improve their memory. Image credit: Gualtiero Boffi/EyeEm/Getty Images.
  • Researchers looked at the effects of walnut consumption on memory and brain health.
  • They found that consuming 60 grams of mixed nuts a day boosted verbal memory and blood flow in the brain.
  • Further studies are needed to confirm the results.

Around 19% of adults aged 50 and older live with cognitive impairment ranging from mild impairments to Alzheimer’s disease.

Education show that lifestyle factors such as diet can protect brain health and reduce the risk of cognitive decline. Diets such as the Mediterranean diet and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet have been linked to slower rates of cognitive decline and reduced risk of dementia.

Nuts are common to both of these diets. Nuts contain nutrients, including unsaturated fatty acids, proteins and polyphenols, all of which can benefit cognition.

Further studies on how walnuts affect cognition and brain health could inform dietary and public health recommendations.

Recently, researchers have been studying the effects of daily nut consumption on cognition and brain health. They found that daily nut consumption promoted blood flow in the brain and verbal memory in the elderly.

The study was published in Clinical Nutrition and was funded by the International Nuts and Dried Fruit Council (INC).

For the study, the researchers recruited 28 healthy individuals with an average age of 65 and an average body mass index (BMI) of 27.9. A BMI between 25 and 29.9 is considered overweight.

Participants were randomized into two groups and assigned to one of two diet plans for 16 weeks. One group consumed 60 grams of walnuts, pistachios, cashews and hazelnuts per day, while the other group consumed no nuts. The groups changed nut consumption protocols after an 8-week washout period.

At the end of each period, the researchers collected indicators from the participants:

  • cerebral vascular function
  • key endothelial function for blood clotting and the passage of fluids and electrolytes from the blood into the tissues
  • arterial stiffness
  • retinal microvasculature
  • cognitive performance.

Ultimately, they found that daily walnut consumption increased blood flow to various areas of the brain, including the left frontal lobe, bilateral prefrontal cortex, and frontal lobe.

They also found that nut consumption improved peripheral endothelial function, reduced arterial stiffness, and improved retinal microvasculature.

Additionally, after consuming walnuts, participants were able to recall 16 percent more words in a verbal memory task. Nut consumption, however, provided no difference in other areas, including executive function, stress and quality of life.

Medical News Today spoke with Dr. Dana Hunnes, a senior clinical dietitian at UCLA Medical Center and an assistant professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health in Los Angeles, who was not involved in the study, about how nut consumption can improve memory and health of the brain.

He noted that the exact mechanisms are unknown. However, she added that researchers have suggested that nut consumption keeps blood vessels in the brain healthy, possibly by reducing inflammation that is linked to lower cognitive function and conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.

Dani Felber, brain health integrative dietitian and owner of Focused Nutrition and Wellness, who was not involved in the study, also said MNT extension:

Our brains are particularly susceptible to oxidative stress, which damages our brain cells over time, leading to a decline in memory and cognitive function. While cognitive decline is a normal part of the aging process, slower rates of cognitive decline are associated with higher intakes of antioxidants, which are vital for reducing oxidative stress. Nuts, especially walnuts and pecans, have significant levels of antioxidants, even higher than blueberries, famous for their high antioxidant levels.

Dr. Hunnes said the study’s short duration means the long-term effects of nut consumption on memory and cognitive health remain unknown.

Memory and cognitive function are a long-term problem and need to be developed for a long time, [meaning] it takes more than just 16 weeks [to reach conclusions]he observed.

As always in nutrition, it adds to the literature and continues to show positive effects of consuming healthy foods like nuts, but long-term studies are needed as always, she added.

When asked which nuts are most beneficial for brain health, Felber said:

Walnuts, which look exactly like little brains, are considered one of the best nuts for brain health for a variety of reasons. In addition to being the only nuts to contain a significant amount of omega-3 fatty acids, walnuts boast the highest antioxidant content, as well as the highest potency, or quality, of antioxidants, compared to other common nuts.

MNT extension she also asked Dr. Hunnes which dietary alternatives may confer similar benefits to those with nut allergies.

It’s possible that olives, soybeans, and seeds like sunflower, chia or flax have similar positive health benefits since they all have healthy levels of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated omega-3 oils, she said.

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