AGING
January 9, 2017

Your Brain Needs the Mediterranean

Following a Mediterranean diet can help keep your brain sharper, a study of people over 70 shows. And there are brain scans to prove it.

It happens. As we age, our brains shrink, and this takes a toll on mental abilities as well as playing tricks with our memory. But what if we could reduce this brain atrophy with our diet? A new study suggests that eating a Mediterranean diet may do just that.

The Mediterranean diet is no fad diet. It relies on foods common to countries like Greece, Italy, Spain, Croatia, Egypt, Turkey and Southern France — mostly plant-based foods — fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts — along with healthy splashes of olive oil. Moderate amounts of milk and cheese, fish and red wine are also part of it, along with limited amounts of red meat and poultry.

The Mediterranean diet isn’t hard to follow. No major food groups are off limits, and it focuses on fresh foods that are easy to find, generally inexpensive and simple to prepare.

The study involved nearly 1,000 people in their 70s, none of whom had been diagnosed with dementia. In addition to looking at their diets, Scottish researchers examined the brain scans that nearly half of the participants had had when they were about 73 years old to measure their brain volume, gray matter volume and the thickness of the outer layer of the brain, the cortex. Three years later 400 of those people had a second MRI performed, and the results were viewed in relation to how closely they tended to follow the Mediterranean diet.

People varied in how well they adhered to the Mediterranean diet. Those who didn’t follow it so closely tended to lose more brain volume over three years than those who did. In fact, there was a 0.5 percent difference in brain volume between the two groups, about half of what would be expected with normal aging.

When other factors that could affect brain function were taken into consideration, such as education level, age or the presence of diabetes of high blood pressure, the results were still the same.

Surprisingly, eating more fish and meat was not related to changes within the brain, contrary to previous studies. “It's possible that other components of the Mediterranean diet are responsible for this relationship, or that it's due to all of the components in combination,” author, Michelle Luciano, said in a statement.

This study tracked brain measurements over time rather than at one point, as previous studies on diet and brain health have. By studying eating habits before looking at brain volume, this study suggests that diet may provide long-term brain protection, according to Luciano, though more studies are needed to confirm this.

The Mediterranean diet isn’t hard to follow. No major food groups are off limits, and it focuses on fresh foods that are easy to find, generally inexpensive and simple to prepare. For most people it doesn’t require major dietary changes, but even if it does, it’s worth the effort to keep your brain healthy.

The study is published in Neurology.
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