There’s a reason why your mother always made you eat your greens. Dark leafy greens are packed with essential nutrients and are a top source of folate, an important B vitamin linked to preventing birth defects and hearing loss and may help protect against certain cancers. Research now suggests folate may help keep your aging brain sharp. In a 2015 cohort study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, folate intake below the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) was associated with increased risk of mild cognitive impairment and probable dementia later in life.

To determine whether certain B vitamins (including folate) are linked to cognition, researchers reviewed food frequency questionnaires and assessed nutrient intake of 7,000 women ages 65 to 79 years from the Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study (an ancillary study to the Women’s Health Initiative). A physician was then responsible for determining the presence of mild cognitive impairment or probable dementia over a period of about five years.

Results showed nearly half the women fell below the folate RDA of 400 micrograms. Women below the folate RDA had two times the risk of incident mild cognitive impairment or probable dementia, even after controlling for factors like multivitamin use. This means that taking folic acid in supplement form might not fully compensate for low levels of folate in the diet.

Folate plays an essential role in helping to regulate the concentration of homocysteine in the blood. High levels of homocysteine can put you at risk for cardiovascular disease, which can increase the risk for cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease. Folate is also important for making DNA, RNA, and neurotransmitters, and folate deficiency has been linked to DNA damage in neurons, affecting brain function.

You can increase your daily folate intake simply by adding more greens to your plate. Just half a cup of cooked spinach or two cups of shredded Romaine lettuce will get you over 30% of the RDA. About ten asparagus spears or one artichoke also provides an excellent source. Try adding a simple green salad to your dinner for an easy way to get more folate. Looking for a folate-packed meal? Try our Spinach & Chicken Stir-Fry Salad with Raspberries, which packs in 25% of your daily folate need.

Published April 1, 2015