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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