Higher rates of illness among women could be reduced through a diet of brightly coloured food, including spinach, watermelon, tomatoes, oranges and carrots.

While women tend to live longer than men, they have higher rates of debilitating illness, such as macular degeneration and dementia.

However, lifestyle can play an important role in the development of these illnesses and now a new study has found that food which contains pigmented carotenoids could help to stop visual and cognitive loss. Two carotenoids in particular, lutein and zeaxanthin, are found in eye and brain tissue and have been linked to improvements in the degeneration of the central nervous system.

Co-author Professor Billy R. Hammond, from the University of Georgia, said: “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 perseverate but with illnesses that are debilitating.

“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.”

After examining data from previous studies, researchers found women are affected by degenerative illnesses at a much higher rate than men.

Professor Hamond said: “If you take all the autoimmune diseases collectively, women account for nearly 80%. So, because of this vulnerability, linked directly to biology, women need extra preventive care.”

Women are more at risk due to the ways in which their bodies store vitamins and minerals. Higher rates of body fat play a role in absorbing vitamins and minerals, which can help during pregnancy, but means there is less for the retina and brain.

Explaining the role of pigmented carotenoids, Professor Hammond said: “Men and women eat about the same amount of these carotenoids, but the requirements for women are much higher.

“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.”

He added: “Components of diet influence the brain, from things like personality to even our concept of self. I don’t think people quite realise 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.”

The study has been published in Nutritional Neuroscience.

 

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