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Blueberries May Restore Some Memory, Coordination and Balance Lost with Age

By Judy McBride
September 10, 1999

WASHINGTON, Sept. 10--A diet rich in blueberry extract reversed some loss of balance and coordination and improved short-term memory in aging rats, according to a USDA study to be published in the Sept. 15 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.

“If this finding holds for humans, it should further encourage consumption of fruits and vegetables high in antioxidants to help fight the effects of aging,” said Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman.

Daily for eight weeks, researchers fed extracts of blueberry, strawberry or spinach to 19 month-old rats, age-equivalent to 65 or 70 year-old humans. All three extracts improved short-term memory. Only the blueberry extract improved balance and coordination.

This is the first study that shows fruits and vegetables actually reversing dysfunctions in behavior and in nerve cells. Earlier, the same researchers, led by neuroscientist James A. Joseph of the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston, reported that high-antioxidant fruits and vegetables prevented some loss of function in aging rats.

Blueberries, strawberries, and spinach test high in their ability to subdue oxygen free radicals. These oxygen radicals, which can damage cell membranes, DNA and other delicate internal machinery, are blamed for many of the dysfunctions and diseases associated with aging.

“Motor behavior is one of the first things to go as you age,” said Joseph. “The improvements we saw in coordination and balance are really significant. In other studies, little else has reversed these deficits in motor function.”

A decline in motor skills starts at about 12 months for rats. By 19 months, the length of time rats can walk a narrow rod before losing balance normally drops from 13 to 5 seconds. After eating blueberry extract, the rats stayed on the rod for 11 seconds, on average.

Joseph and psychologist Barbara Shukitt-Hale were joined in the study by Natalia Denisova, Donna Bielinski, Antonio Martin and John McEwen, all at the USDA center in Boston, and Paula Bickford at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Denver.

Scientific contact: James A. Joseph and Barbara Shukitt-Hale, USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, phone (617) 556-3178 [Joseph], (617) 556-3118, [Shukitt-Hale],,