Known to Be “Heart Smart,” Whole Grains May Also Lower the Risk of Alzheimer’s in Blacks

The American Heart Association recommends whole grains as part of a heart healthy diet. Studies have shown eating whole grains is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.  A recent study revealed an added benefit of whole grains for older Black adults, slowing the decline in memory and thinking abilities.

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By Alzheimer's Prevention Bulletin

A recent study published by the American Academy of Neurology investigated the relationship between consumption of whole grains and cognitive decline in older adults. Study author, Xiaoran Liu, PhD, MsC, FAHA of Rush University in Chicago, IL, provided us insight into the study and what the results might mean in identifying interventions to support the cognitive health of older Black adults. 

The study included more than 3,000 older adults, with nearly 2,000 being Black and the remainder being White.  In both cases, more than 60% of participants were women. Study participants were grouped according to their whole grain consumption with those eating less than one serving per day of whole grains set as the reference group.  

“Our study found that a higher proportion of Black participants had more than one serving per day of whole grains than White participants, with 67% and 38%, respectively, “said Dr. Liu. 

Results showed that older Black adults who consumed higher, more frequent amounts of whole grains had a slower decline in cognition, perceptual speed (i.e., the ability to focus attention and process information), and episodic memory (i.e., the ability to recall facts, experiences, etc.).  

Quantifying the impact of whole grain consumption on Black adults, Dr. Liu shared, “Among Black people, those who ate the most whole grains had lower levels of memory decline—equivalent to being 8.5 years younger than those who ate small amounts of whole grains.”

The same trend was not seen among White adults. Whole grain consumption was not associated with a slower rate of cognitive decline in these participants. Nonetheless, including the AHA recommended six servings of whole grains daily remains important for all adults to decrease their risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. 

What are whole grains?

Reducing the risk of heart disease by up to 30%, whole grains are widely known as a heart healthy food group. The American Heart Association (AHA) encourages including whole grains in one’s daily diet to decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. High in fiber and full of nutrients, AHA recommends six servings of whole grains per day. 

Not to be confused with “refined grains,” whole grains contain the entire grain – which is made up of bran, germ and endosperm. Refined grains have been milled (ground into flour or meal) which removes the bran and germ and strips the grain of important nutrients, including B-vitamins, iron and dietary fiber.

The AHA recommends reading the label to determine if a food contains whole or refined grains. For most whole grain products, the first ingredient will include the words “whole” or “whole grain.” Examples of whole grain foods include:

  • Whole wheat, oats, corn, barley, farro
  • Graham flour
  • Oatmeal, rolled or steel cut
  • Brown rice
  • Wild rice
  • Popcorn
  • Quinoa
  • Sorghum or broomcorn

The AHA recommends choosing whole grains and products that contain at least 51% whole versus refined grains and having six servings per day. Whole grain consumption is not optimal among adults in the United States. More than 90% of American adults do not meet daily serving recommendations of whole grains. 

More research is needed on the relationship between nutrition and memory and thinking abilities. To browse research studies, like this one, looking for participants near you, please visit our Find a Study page.