A new study exam­ined 32 nutri­ents found in the Mediterranean diet that ear­lier research has asso­ci­ated with bet­ter brain func­tion in the elderly.

It found higher lev­els of sev­eral key nutri­ents were linked to increased brain con­nec­tiv­ity and cog­ni­tive per­for­mance.

Our study sug­gests that diet and nutri­tion mod­er­ate the asso­ci­a­tion between net­work effi­ciency and cog­ni­tive per­for­mance.- Aron Barbey, pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy at theUniversity of Illinois

“The basic ques­tion we were ask­ing was whether diet and nutri­tion are asso­ci­ated with healthy brain aging,” Aron Barbey, University of Illinois psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor in the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, said.

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Researchers eval­u­ated 116 healthy seniors between the ages of 65 and 75, using some of the most accu­rate meth­ods of assess­ing nutri­ent intake and brain func­tion. Instead of rely­ing on food-intake ques­tion­naires, which could have inac­cu­ra­cies due to the imper­fect recall of par­tic­i­pants, they mea­sured nutri­ent bio­mark­ers in the blood. In addi­tion to cog­ni­tive tests, they employed mag­netic res­o­nance imag­ing (MRI) to ascer­tain the effi­ciency of brain net­work per­for­mance.

“And instead of infer­ring brain health from a cog­ni­tive test, we directly exam­ined the brain using high-res­o­lu­tion brain imag­ing,” Barbey said. MRIs can show the effi­ciency of brain net­works, he explained.

Several nutri­ents proved par­tic­u­larly impor­tant in enhanc­ing cog­ni­tive per­for­mance, and they appeared to work syn­er­gis­ti­cally. These nutri­ents and their food sources are the fol­low­ing:

  • Omega‑3 fatty acids from oily fish, Brussels sprouts and wal­nuts.
  • Omega‑6 fatty acids from pump­kin seeds, flaxseeds and pine nuts.
  • Lycopene from water­melon and toma­toes.
  • Alpha- and beta-carotenoids from car­rots and sweet pota­toes.
  • Vitamin Bs (folate, riboflavin and B12) from dark leafy greens, legumes and whole grains.
  • Vitamin D from oily fish.

The scans showed increased brain net­work effi­ciency was tied to omega‑3 fatty acids, omega‑6 fatty acids and carotene. Moreover, dif­fer­ent nutri­ents were asso­ci­ated with improved effi­ciency in spe­cific brain net­works. To illus­trate, omega‑3 fatty acids were con­nected to a net­work involved in gen­eral intel­li­gence, while omega‑6 fatty acids and lycopene were linked to a net­work involved in exec­u­tive func­tion.

“Efficiency has to do with how infor­ma­tion is com­mu­ni­cated within the net­work,” Barbey said. “We looked at ‘local effi­ciency’ – how well infor­ma­tion is shared within a spa­tially con­fined set of brain regions  and also ‘global effi­ciency,’ which reflects how many steps are required to trans­fer infor­ma­tion from any one region to any other region in the net­work.”

“If your net­work is more effi­ciently con­fig­ured, then it should be eas­ier, on aver­age, to access rel­e­vant infor­ma­tion and the task should take you less time,” he added.

To exam­ine how sta­ble the nutri­ent bio­mark­ers are over time, the research team retested 40 par­tic­i­pants two years later. The results were sim­i­lar to those obtained in the first tests.

“Our study sug­gests that diet and nutri­tion mod­er­ate the asso­ci­a­tion between net­work effi­ciency and cog­ni­tive per­for­mance,” Barbey said. “This means that the strength of the asso­ci­a­tion between func­tional brain net­work effi­ciency and cog­ni­tive per­for­mance is asso­ci­ated with the level of the nutri­ents.”

Jason Priest is a reg­is­tered nurse and founder of DadBodHealth. He did not par­tic­i­pate in the study, but told Olive Oil Times that the find­ings made a lot of sense to him since con­sum­ing nutri­ent dense foods over a long period of time is linked to bet­ter health, in gen­eral.

“The Mediterranean diet con­sists of many nutri­ent dense foods, espe­cially healthy fats, which have been shown to have an extremely pos­i­tive impact on cog­ni­tive func­tions such as mem­ory, focus and atten­tion,” he said. “It’s rea­son­able to believe that con­sum­ing these foods over a long period could offer one way of pro­long­ing opti­mal brain health.”

“While many other fac­tors influ­ence cog­ni­tive func­tions, we are what we eat,” Priest added.

The study was pub­lished in the jour­nal NeuroImage.


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