Key Nutrients in Mediterranean Diet Linked to Healthy Brain Aging

Illinois researchers discover nutrients from fatty fish, whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables work synergistically to enhance brain health.

By Mary West
Jan. 31, 2019 10:20 UTC

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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