While nutrient needs change for everyone after the age of 50, it appears there are disease-fighting compounds and nutrients that specifically provide a health edge for women by helping to prevent memory loss, hip fractures, and breast and stomach cancers. In this article, the first of a two-part series, we take a look at the latest research and detail the foods that contain these beneficial components. Next time, we'll tell men what to bring to the grocey checkout counter.
(More: Fiftysomething Diet: The 5 Foods Men Need to Eat)
Strawberries and Blueberries: Trying to remember the name of that high school friend you bumped into at the supermarket might be a whole lot easier if you put berries on the daily menu, particularly strawberries and blueberries.
Older women with high intakes of these two berries can delay memory decline by up to two and a half years, according to a recent report in the Annals of Neurology. Researchers suspect flavonoid pigments in the two berries are the beneficial ingredient.
“What makes our study unique is the amount of data we analyzed over such a long period of time — no other berry study has been conducted on such a large scale,” lead researcher Elizabeth Devore says. “Among women who consumed two or more servings of strawberries and blueberries each week we saw a modest reduction in memory decline. Our findings have significant public health implications as increasing berry intake is a fairly simple dietary modification.”
Another good reason for fiftysomething women to dish up strawberries: a 2007 Harvard study found less inflammation in the blood vessels of older women eating two servings (1/2 cup each) of strawberries a week. These scientists speculate that strawberries contain a number of key nutrients that might play a role in taming inflammation, including fiber, folate, potassium and vitamin C.
(More: Fiftysomething Diet: What to Eat to Protect Your Vision)
Dark, Leafy Greens Although calcium hogs the limelight when it comes to bone strength, a study done back in 1999 at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston makes it clear that women need to pay attention to another key bone builder, vitamin K, to help prevent hip fracture in later years.
When following the diets of more than 72,000 women age 38-74 over a 10-year period, scientists found that women eating higher amounts of vitamin K (110 micrograms or more) are 30 percent less likely to break a hip than women eating very little of the vitamin. Dark, leafy greens like kale, collard greens and spinach are superstar sources of the nutrient, carrying more than 500 micrograms in just one-half cup cooked, as this Department of Agriculture chart shows.
And how's this for a side-benefit: Preliminary findings also suggest that vitamin K could play a role in protecting the skin’s elasticity and helping to prevent wrinkles.
Green Tea Sipping on green tea could help ward off digestive cancers, including colorectal, stomach and esophageal cancer. Researchers at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center came to that conclusion after studying the diets of 75,000 middle-aged women enrolled in the Shanghai Women's Health Study. Women who drank green tea three times a week for more than six months had a 17 percent lower risk of all three digestive cancers combined, according to the study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Ratchet up those amounts to two or three cups of green tea a day and risk for digestive cancers drops 21 percent. “For all digestive system cancers combined, the risk was reduced by 27 percent among women who had been drinking tea regularly for at least 20 years,” says Sarah Nechuta, assistant professor of medicine at Vanderbilt. “For colorectal cancer, risk was reduced by 29 percent among long-term tea drinkers.”
The ingredient in green tea that helps prevent cancer could be disease-fighting chemicals called polyphenols or compounds called catechins. Research confirms that catechins may work to block cancer by reducing growth of tumor cells and reducing DNA damage.
Drinking only black tea? The Shanghai study researchers didn’t look at that variety. But reports from the Iowa Women’s Health study link frequent drinking of black tea with a reduced risk of digestive tract cancers. In other words, tea drinking is a good anticancer strategy for fiftysomething women.
Walnuts With heart disease the number one killer in women, it’s good to know that walnuts are rich in plant-based omega-3 fats called alpha-linolenic acids. A new study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition finds that eating walnuts, the best source of these plant based omega-3 fats, can also lower risk of cardiovascular disease. For each gram of ALA consumed (a handful of walnuts has 2.5 grams) there is a 10 percent lower risk of death from coronary heart disease.
But the bigger news for women is that these tree nuts may help delay the development of breast cancer. A 2011 report in the journal Nutrition and Cancer finds that eating a moderate amount (2 ounces) of walnuts a day could help postpone the development of breast cancer in animals. “We found that a walnut diet reduced mammary tumors in mice,” says W. Elaine Hardman, an associate professor at Marshall University’s Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine. “The best tumor reduction was when both the mother and her offspring consumed walnuts throughout life.”
"It’s an animal study, so it’s not certain the findings apply to humans," says Alice Bender, a registered dietitian at the American Institute of Cancer Research. "But it really underscores the importance of routinely eating whole foods where nutrients and phytochemicals all work together for better health and cancer protection.”
Researchers speculate that walnuts carry many anti-cancer components that may be acting synergistically. On that list: vitamin E, omega-3 fats and phytosterols, polyphenols and carotenoids, which are found in plants.
Red Wine/Alcohol Drinking an occasional glass of wine or other alcoholic beverage may help middle-aged women stay healthy as they age, according to a 2011 Harvard study. Scientists looked at the middle-age drinking habits of some 14,000 female health professionals and compared that to their health status at age 70. Women who had one or two drinks a day in their late 50s and beyond had 28 percent higher odds of being in good health (free from chronic illness, physical disability and mental decline) compared with nondrinkers.
Not drinking that often? The study found the same benefits, albeit on a smaller scale, for women having as few as one or two drinks per week. At the moment, it’s unclear if certain compounds in alcohol are conferring good health or if it’s overall lifestyle that fosters protection. “In comparison with non-drinkers, drinkers have very different lifestyles,” says Qi Sun, lead Harvard scientist on the study. “But we adjusted for all those factors, including socio-economic status. We believe there are some beneficial effects of moderate alcohol consumption.”
The key word here is moderate. Also, experts caution that their findings aren’t a call for non-drinkers to start imbibing.