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Blueberries a health bonus as people age

Blueberries are one of the stars of a prairie summer. Whether you pick them in the sun-dappled woods or pick them up in containers at the supermarket, they make a delightful snack out-of-hand, shine in a variety of dishes from pies and muffins to sauces and comfits, and are packed with nutrients that offer a myriad of health benefits.

As a fruit native to North America, wild blueberries have been enjoyed by Canadians for hundreds of years—indeed, the berry in shades of purple and red would have attracted the attention of Indians who dried it for pemmican, and settlers who used it to supplement their often-meagre food supply. Although during those early years, nutrition was not of prime importance in seeking out foods, it has been known for a long time that blueberries are a source of vitamins C and K and of minerals such as manganese. More recently, as testing methods have become more sophisticated, it has been revealed that the small and humble blueberry has benefits for the nervous system, cardiovascular system and the brain due to the content of antioxidants and enzymes.

Give deep colours

While consumers of all ages benefit from the nutrients blueberries bring to the table, it seems these are especially important as people age. For example, consider cardio protection which is well documented. Many of the reasons the berries are thought to be especially healthy are due to the presence of antioxidants, in particular that of anthocyanins (which also give the deep colours to the berry) although other antioxidants also contribute.

Pertaining to the cardiovascular system are benefits such as improving the blood fat balance, including reduction in total cholesterol—raising HDL (good) cholesterol and lowering triglycerides. At the same time blueberry intake has been shown to help protect blood components such as LDL (bad) cholesterol from oxidative damage that could lead to clogging of arteries. Protection has also been shown for cells lining blood vessels. Studies revealed that some of these benefits actually improved as blueberry intake increased.

It appears that antioxidants in blueberries have an effect in many of the body’s systems (sometimes called “whole body relevance”). Antioxidant-based protective effects have been shown especially as one ages and there is more of a risk of diseases stemming from degeneration of nerves. These diseases—commonly known ones are Parkinson’s. Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s—affect balance, movement and speaking which result from loss of neuron function. It appears antioxidants lower oxidative stress on neurons and thus offer some protection.

Cognitive benefits

Related to nerve cell protection is an exciting new discovery linked to cognitive benefits. Studies that had subjects consume blueberries daily for 12 weeks (in the form of concentrated juice) showed improvement in memory as well as the slowing of other mental problems frequently associated with aging. It is believed that antioxidant nutrients lessen oxidative stress on nerve cells in the brain and thus achieve better mental process.

Further health aspects that have been noted by a high consumption of blueberries are a favourable impact on blood sugar regulation, offering protection to the retina of the eye and anti-cancer effects.

The question you might ask is does the wild blueberry offer more nutrients per gram than the larger domesticated version? The smaller wild berry has a lower water content, and yes, per gram, has a slightly higher nutrient content. Berries growing in the wild are free of pesticides which is a plus, but it is also possible to find organic domestically raised berries. Whatever you choose, you can’t go wrong in eating half a cup of blueberries (considered one serving) several times a week (this amount has about 45 calories). It’s a fine idea to throw them into pancakes, muffins and pies, but an even better idea is to eat them simply sprinkled on cereal, or by the bowlful for dessert (add a dab of ice cream if you must).

While the berry season is short, the good news is that freezing or drying the fruit will not affect antioxidant content (although it does destroy some of the vitamin C).