Pass the lettuce, please.
Credit: Caitlin Bensel

We’ve all heard the saying "an apple a day keeps the doctor away," but if that doctor is a neurologist, you might want to start with a salad. A new study published in the journal Neurology investigated the link between the nutrients found in leafy greens and cognitive functioning in older adults.

The study followed 960 participants between 58 and 99 years old. Subjects filled out food frequency questionnaires and took several cognitive tests over the course of five years to determine how the foods they ate affected their mental functioning. Tests included memory, spatial ability, and perceptual speed, reported the New York Times.

Researchers adjusted for age, sex, education, cognitive activities, physical activities, smoking, and consumption of seafood and alcohol. They found that participants who consumed the most servings of leafy greens—about one to two per day—had slower cognitive decline when compared to those who ate little or none. They also tested the veggie lovers and found their mental ability, in general, compared with people nearly 11 years younger.

Researchers found that lettuce, spinach, kale, and collard greens do the most to slow cognitive decline, according to the New York Times. The study attributes the brain-boosting benefits to nutrients in leafy greens such as vitamin K, lutein, beta-carotene, nitrate, folate, and more.

But if it’s just the nutrients in leafy greens that boost our brain health, could popping a supplement with these vitamins and minerals have the same effect? Experts say ‘not so much’.

Martha Clare Morris, lead author and a professor of epidemiology at Rush University in Chicago, told the New York Times, “The nutrients in food have many different forms and interactions. A specific formulation put in a pill with the same effect? That’s wishful thinking.”

Check out these 19 New Ways to Eat Leafy Greens for more ways to incorporate leafy greens into your diet.