Inspired by the cuisine of people in Spain, Greece, Southern France and Italy, many health experts have strongly endorsed the Mediterranean diet in recent years.
That’s because this way of eating seems to protect against cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer. Now there’s growing evidence it guards against cognitive decline and dementia too.
In fact, a new study suggests the brains of older people who have lived on the Mediterranean diet are larger, on average, than those of people who eat the way most people in Europe and America eat.
Slow Down Brain Shrinkage
For their study, investigators examined data from 401 people who took part in the Lothian Birth Cohort. This is a long-term study of Scottish people all born on the same day in 1936.
At 70 years of age, they were asked to complete a questionnaire concerning their diets. The answers they submitted were rated according to how close they came to eating the foods typical of a Mediterranean diet. (Keep in mind that these people were born and grew to adulthood decades before the diet became a focus of medical attention.)
A score between 5 and 9 was considered high, with 0 to 4 rated as low.
The info-gathering on their eating habits was followed up by brain scans three and six years later. None of the participants had dementia at the start of the study.
The results showed less brain volume loss in the three years between the two scans in those adhering most closely to the Mediterranean diet. The outcome remained valid even after age, sex, education, body mass index, diabetes and cognitive function were taken into account.
The people who scored 5 – 9 lost less than half the brain volume of those with scores in the 0 – 4 range.
Leading the study was Dr. Michelle Luciano from the University of Edinburgh. She said, “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….and may be able to provide long-term protection to the brain.”
These are the “Brain Foods”
The diet emphasizes vegetables, legumes, fruits, unrefined cereals, nuts, olive oil, low-to-moderate dairy foods, moderate-to-high amounts of fish, limited consumption of red meat and modest amounts of alcohol.
It’s an eating plan that provides a high level of antioxidants, dietary fiber and unsaturated fats, a higher ratio of monounsaturated to saturated fats, and lower biomarkers for inflammation and blood clotting factors.
Last year, researchers from King’s College London reviewed 32 studies and concluded that a Mediterranean diet is associated with better cognitive performance.
In the same year, a separate review from Australian researchers included 18 studies totaling 60,000 participants. Their analysis showed that “higher adherence to a MedDiet is associated with slower rates of cognitive decline, reduced conversion to Alzheimer’s disease, and improvements in cognitive function.”
Yet another review published in January, 2017 identified nine studies that involved a total of 34,000 adults. The researchers found that the more faithfully participants stuck to this diet, the less likely they were to suffer cognitive disorders.
Although it’s not possible to prove cause and effect from population studies, only an association, the evidence for the Mediterranean diet’s overall health benefits and brain protective properties is convincing.
One thing is for sure, this way of eating is a far better option than SAD – the standard American diet.