Although women tend to live longer than men, they typically have higher rates of illness. A new study led by the University of Georgia (UGA) has found that these problems can be improved by a better diet containing pigmented carotenoids such as kale, spinach, yams, watermelon, bell peppers, carrots, tomatoes, and oranges. These brightly-colored fruits and vegetables are crucial for preventing visual and cognitive degeneration.
“The idea is that men get a lot of the diseases that tend to kill you, but women get those diseases less often or later so they persevere but with illnesses that are debilitating,” explained study co-author Billy R. Hammond, a professor of Behavioral and Brain Sciences at UGA. “For example, of all of the existing cases of macular degeneration and dementia in the world, two-thirds are women. These diseases that women suffer for years are the very ones most amenable to prevention through lifestyle.”
Professor Hammond and his colleagues studied several degenerative conditions that women seem to experience at much higher rates than men, ranging from autoimmune diseases to dementia. “If you take all the autoimmune diseases collectively, women account for nearly 80 percent. So, because of this vulnerability, linked directly to biology, women need extra preventive care,” he added.
One of the reasons for women’s vulnerability to such diseases is related to the way they store vitamins and minerals in their bodies. Since women have, on average, more body fat than men, they can better store in their bodies dietary vitamins and minerals. However, there are less of these vitamins available for their retina and brain, thus putting them at more risk for degenerative problems.
Since pigmented carotenoids such as lutein or zeaxanthin act as powerful antioxidants in humans, they can help improve central nervous system degeneration. “Men and women eat about the same amount of these carotenoids, but the requirements for women are much higher,” said Professor Hammond.
“The recommendations should be different, but there are, generally, not any recommendations for men or women for dietary components that are not directly linked to deficiency disease (like vitamin C and scurvy). Part of the idea for the article is that recommendations need to be changed so that women are aware that they have these vulnerabilities that they have to proactively address, so they don’t have these problems later in life.”
Although these carotenoids are also available via dietary supplements, getting them through food is a much better strategy.
“Components of diet influence the brain, from things like personality to even our concept of self. I don’t think people quite realize what a profound effect diet has on basically who they are, their mood, even their propensity to anger. And now of course this is extended to the microbiome and the bacteria that make up your gut – all of these components work together to create the building blocks that compose our brain and the neurotransmitters that mediate its use,” Professor Hammond concluded.
The study is published in the journal Nutritional Neuroscience.