Nuts may play important role in memory, study shows

Recently YourLifeChoices reported on a new study into how chemical compounds known as flavanols can protect memory function. Hot on the heels of that research comes another study linking food and memory. It suggests a handful of nuts daily could increase your chances of having better memory function later in life.

The study, conducted by researchers from the Maastricht University Medical Centre in the Netherlands, has been published in Clinical Nutrition. It involved what is known as a randomised, controlled crossover trial. This entails half of participants randomly being selected to be on one diet and the other half given a different diet. Then the two groups are reversed, taking in the opposite diet.

In this study, one group took part in a 16-week program involving a 60g daily intake of mixed nuts. The mix included walnuts, pistachios, cashews and hazelnuts. The other group’s diet included no nuts during that 16-week period.

An eight-week ‘washout’ period followed, after which the groups swapped over and adopted the opposite program. In this study, the participants’ ages ranged from 60 to 70, half of the group males and other half females.

What did the results show?

The researchers used what is known as the Cambridge Neuropsychological Test Automated Battery (CANTAB) to test participants cognitive performance. Their results indicated a link between nut consumption and improved memory. After consuming nuts, participants achieved better results in a verbal memory task, recalling 16 per cent more words.

However, nut intake provided no difference in other areas, such as executive function, stress and quality of life. Memory, it seems, was the main beneficiary of the diet rich in nuts.

How do nuts help improve memory function?

This remains a matter of some conjecture. The results of the study certainly point towards nuts playing a role, but does not definitively identify the mechanisms involved. One suggestion is improved blood flow to the brain. Daily nut consumption increased blood flow in various areas, including the left frontal lobe, bilateral prefrontal cortex, and frontal lobe.

Those on the nut diet also showed improved peripheral endothelial function, reduced arterial stiffness, and improved retinal microvasculature. Endothelial function is vital for blood clotting and the passage of fluids and electrolytes from the blood into tissues.

Though the results of this study are encouraging, it’s important to be aware of some of its limitations. The first of those is the length of the study. Dr Dana Hunnes, assistant professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health in Los Angeles, highlighted these.

“Memory and cognitive function is a long-term and long-to-develop issue,” she said. “It takes more than just 16 weeks [to reach any definitive conclusions].”

Also noteworthy is that the study involved only 28 participants, a relatively small sample size. Finally, the International Nuts and Dried Fruit Council provided the funding for this study. That does not suggest any impropriety or inherent bias but is important to note as a matter of transparency.

What about those with nut allergies?

Clearly a handful of nuts per day is not possible for such people. And because the mechanisms behind the apparent memory improvement are not yet known, it’s difficult to recommend substitutes.

However, Dr Hunnes suggests some potential alternatives. “It’s possible that olives, soybeans, and seeds – sunflower, chia, or flax – would have similar positive health benefits,” she said. “They all have healthy levels of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated omega-3 oils.”

While the jury is still out on the exact benefits nuts provide to memory function, it provides further motivation for their inclusion in a healthy diet.

It seems each new food study provides further support for what most of us already inherently strongly suspect. A diet rich in unprocessed foods – nuts, grains, fruit, vegetables – gives us a better shot at being healthier for longer.

Are you a nut lover? How often do eat them? Do you find them beneficial to your overall health? Let us know via the comments section below.

Also read: Link between walnuts and your heart health revealed

Health disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

Andrew Gigacz
Andrew Gigacz
Andrew has developed knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income and government entitlements, as well as issues affecting older Australians moving into or living in retirement. He's an accomplished writer with a passion for health and human stories.
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