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John Paradis: Blueberry fields forever

I love everything about blueberries. They taste great just by themselves fresh, but the blue fruit is also good in smoothies and with yogurt. Picking them yourself is a fun outing and they’re a big part of our farming culture here in New England, helping us sustain local farmers and preserving rural communities.

But now I have another reason to love this purple gem of summer: Blueberries are also brain food. The same anthocyanins that give blueberries their deep blue hue also increase brain signals — chemicals that help neurons signal one another and offset some of the deficits of aging.

That’s an important topic for me. Like millions of other Americans, dementia has affected my family. And, in my work at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, I see veterans every day who suffer from the disease.

Next week, at an international conference in Boston, a major topic will be the role of nutrition in keeping our brains sharp as we get older. The blueberry, that anti-oxidant source of purple power, is high on every list of super foods.

Speaking to members of the Massachusetts and New Hampshire chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association during a recent meeting at Jewish Geriatric Services in Longmeadow, Boston University School of Medicine’s Nancy Emerson Lombardo said our nation is approaching a “crisis stage” if we don’t make significant changes in our diet.

So that’s another reason why eating our local blueberries is important – they’re patriotic, too. That’s right, going purple, is a great way to go red, white and blue.

Emerson Lombardo, who will speak at next week’s Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Boston, says poor nutrition among Americans is now classified as a national security risk. According to the Defense Department, at least a quarter of all new recruits are rejected because they can’t make standards for weight, and only 3 percent of our service men and women are eating properly, affecting readiness and preparedness for duty.

How we got to this point as a nation is pretty clear — we’re drowning in sugar, salt and fat. It’s a toxic combination that’s been fueled by heavy marketing and by the lack of access to healthy foods, especially in the inner city where it’s far easier for families to purchase over-processed junk food than fresh produce.

Sugar, in particular, has been an American diet nightmare. In 1900, Americans on average consumed five pounds of sugar per year. In 2012? Try 135 pounds. “Sugar is destroying our brains,” says Emerson Lombardo, who notes that about half of all new cases of diabetes in our country are teenagers.

What can we do about it? More public health attention, research funding and cooperation from the food industry is the answer. Other countries are taking notice, too.

In southern Europe, where youth are no longer eating the traditional Mediterranean diet their parents grew up on, nations are creating task forces to combat obesity. It seems the American way of relying on processed foods, frozen precooked meals and high-sugar snacks is not sitting well.

In February, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study funded by the Spanish government that was clinically significant. Eating a Mediterranean diet rich in unrefined olive oil or nuts lowered the rate of major cardiovascular events, at least among people at increased risk for heart disease, researchers reported.

When it comes to aging well, most of us already know what we need to do: Exercise, eat right, get a good night’s sleep. Don’t smoke or drink heavily. But now the research is pretty clear, a good diet and healthy living is a key to preserving cognitive and emotional brain health.

At the Soldiers’ Home, we’re inviting Lombardo to look at our nutrition program to see what we can do to improve the cognitive health of our veterans. It’s never too late to start eating healthier, she says. We are hoping that easing up on fat, meat and dairy products will produce improvements in the quality of life among our most senior of senior citizens.

For the rest of, understand that diseases such as Alzheimer’s that strike in the 70s and 80s often start to develop decades earlier. Too many bacon cheeseburgers, weekends on the couch and evenings in smoky rooms can add up. The good news is that changes you make today will not only help your heart but greatly benefit your brain and mood.

Trying to persuade Americans to follow a memory preservation diet may not be easy, but here in New England we have lots of motivation this time of year: the Fourth of July, being outdoors, and eating some of the best blueberries in the country. It all means the time is ripe to change how and what we eat — naturally, of course.

John Paradis, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, lives in Florence and writes a monthly column that appears on the second Friday. He is the communications director for the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke.

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