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Which fruits best lower young women’s risk of heart disease?

Nutrition researchers have known for some time that certain foods rich in nutrients called flavonoids -- including tea, red and white wine, and a wide variety of fruits and vegetables -- might have heart-protective effects, helping to ward off hypertension. Pinpointing the particular foods that might be most beneficial, however, has proven to be a challenge.

A new Harvard School of Public Health study published in the journal Circulation indicates that eating at least three servings a week of red, purple, or blue fruits (grapes, apples, and an assortment of berries) that are rich in the flavonoid anthocyanin is associated with a 32 percent decreased heart attack risk in younger women ages 24 to 42 who reported their intake on dietary surveys and were then followed for nearly 20 years.

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Strawberries and blueberries seemed to be particularly protective.

Like other studies that passively follow populations, this one couldn’t prove that particular fruits led to less heart disease, but the researchers said it adds to the limited knowledge base about heart disease risk in younger women, who are much less likely than women over age 60 to develop heart disease. Other studies indicate that heavy smoking, oral contraceptives, diabetes, and hypertension can all increase a woman’s heart disease risk when she’s younger. Drinking moderate amounts of alcohol has been associated with a reduced risk.

“Our data suggest a potential role for flavonoids, specifically anthocyanins, in reducing risk,” wrote the study authors. And unlike alcohol (which is associated with health risks as well as benefits), consuming berries and other dark-colored fruit on a regular basis can only be a win-win for women.

That said, the decrease in risk is a small one, considering that heart attacks are very uncommon in women under age 60. It’s also not certain how much berries and other dark colored fruits play a role in reducing heart disease risk in men and older women.

A 2009 randomized trial found that patients with controlled hypertension who were randomly given anthocyanin supplements experienced an improvement in their cholesterol levels compared to those who were given placebos. Other population studies, however, found that the nutrient had a smaller role to play in heart disease risk as people aged with some finding that eating a plentiful amount of strawberries, blueberries and other anthocyanin-rich fruits decreased risk slightly, while didn’t find any association.

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.
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