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.
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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.