Mediterranean Diet May Preserve Brain Volume

A new study finds the Mediterranean diet may may help slow the loss of brain volume and associated cognitive decline that occurs with aging.

Jan. 10, 2017
By Mary West

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As people age, brain volume is lost, a prob­lem that adversely affects cog­ni­tive skills. A new study has found that fol­low­ing the Mediterranean diet (MedDiet) may help pre­serve the size of the brain. This ben­e­fit should result in less decline in memory and learn­ing abil­ity.
See more: Olive Oil Health Benefits
The MedDiet involves the con­sump­tion of olive oil as the pri­mary source of fat, as well as high quan­ti­ties of fruits, veg­eta­bles, nuts, beans and whole grains. It also includes mod­er­ate amounts of dairy prod­ucts, fish and red wine but limits intake of poul­try and red meat.

In the study pub­lished in the jour­nal Neurology, sci­en­tists in Scotland col­lected dietary data on 967 people around the age of 70 who had normal cog­ni­tive func­tion. Of this group, 562 under­went an MRI at the age of 73 to mea­sure grey matter volume, over­all brain volume and the thick­ness of the outer layer of the brain called the cortex. Among these, 401 came back for a second MRI at the age of 76. Results of the imag­ing scans were com­pared to the degree of adher­ence to the MedDiet.

The find­ings on total brain volume were promis­ing.

Participants who didn’t closely follow the MedDiet were more likely to have a larger loss in volume than those who fol­lowed the diet better. The indi­vid­u­als who adhered best to the MedDiet had only half the loss in volume that would be expected due to the normal effects of aging. After adjust­ing for fac­tors that could influ­ence brain atro­phy, such as age, edu­ca­tion and cer­tain health con­di­tions, the results remained unchanged.

No con­nec­tion was noted between the MedDiet and grey matter volume or cor­ti­cal thick­ness.


In addi­tion, con­trary to the find­ings of ear­lier research, eating more fish and less meat was not asso­ci­ated with a preser­va­tion of brain volume. “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,” said lead author Michelle Luciano, of the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

Luciano noted that while ear­lier stud­ies were lim­ited to a single point in time, the cur­rent one fol­lowed people over a course of three years. “In our study, eating habits were mea­sured before brain volume was, which sug­gests that the diet may be able to pro­vide long-term pro­tec­tion to the brain,” added Luciano. “Still, larger stud­ies are needed to con­firm these results.”

How exactly might the preser­va­tion of brain volume cor­re­late to cog­ni­tive skills? In an inter­view with Olive Oil Times, Luciano explained that research to date on the issue hasn?t pro­duced defin­i­tive find­ings. However, due to her team’s work, she expects they may learn more about it in the not-too-dis­tant future.


“At this stage I cannot place an esti­mate on the ben­e­fit of main­tain­ing cog­ni­tive func­tion due to greater brain volume because dif­fer­ent stud­ies that esti­mate the asso­ci­a­tion between brain loss and cog­ni­tive decline/onset of demen­tia have pro­vided mixed results,” she said. “But because we have mea­sured the cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties of the par­tic­i­pants in our sample and we have infor­ma­tion on whether they progress to demen­tia, we will be able to test whether brain struc­ture is medi­at­ing any asso­ci­a­tion between diet and cog­ni­tive decline. We are yet to per­form this analy­sis, but hope­fully, it will be soon.”

The study wasn’t able to pro­vide infor­ma­tion on whether the par­tic­i­pants were life­long fol­low­ers of the MedDiet or whether they grav­i­tated toward it in midlife. Prior research has shown that the ear­lier a person adheres to the diet, the greater the health ben­e­fits they will enjoy. Nonetheless, it’s never too late to start eating health­ier.