January 04, 2017
2 min read

Mediterranean diet may positively impact long-term brain health

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Lower adherence to a Mediterranean diet over the course of 3 years was associated with brain atrophy in older adults, according to study findings published in Neurology.

“Understanding the contributors to healthy aging is an important task, especially if such contributors are modifiable,” Michelle Luciano, PhD, from the Center for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, and colleagues wrote. “Diet is modifiable and literature documenting the relationship between a healthy diet and good physical health abounds. One focus of dietary research has been on the potential merits of a Mediterranean-type diet: high consumption of fruit, vegetables, legumes, and cereals, olive oil as the primary source of fat, moderate consumption of fish, low to moderate intake of dairy products and wine (accompanying meals), and low intake of red meat and poultry.”

The researchers evaluated the association between a Mediterranean diet and brain loss over time in adults from Scotland between the ages of 73 and 76 years (n = 967) across a duration of 3 years. Longitudinal changes in total brain volume (n = 401), gray matter volume (n = 398) and cortical thickness (n = 323) were measured and compared with adherence to the Mediterranean diet, which was determined by a food frequency questionnaire that participants completed 3 years prior to the baseline imaging data collection.

Analysis that adjusted for demographic and physical health indicators that could affect brain volume, such as age, education, diabetes and high BP, revealed that participants who followed the Mediterranean diet closely retained greater total brain volume over 3 years than those with lower adherence. Overall, 0.5% of the variation in total brain volume was due to the difference in diet. The impact of diet is roughly half that of normal aging.

In opposition to prior research, this study found that fish and meat consumption were not associated with changes in the brain.

“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,” Luciano said in a related press release.

In addition, gray matter volume or cortical thickness did not correlate to adherence to the Mediterranean diet.

“As we age, the brain shrinks and we lose brain cells which can affect learning and memory. This study adds to the body of evidence that suggests the Mediterranean diet has a positive impact on brain health,” she said in the release.

“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. Still, larger studies are needed to confirm these results.” – by Alaina Tedesco

Disclosure: The researchers report receiving support from Age UK, the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the UK Medical Research Council and the Scottish Funding Council SINAPSE Collaboration.