The Mediterranean Diet Might Be Good for an Aging Brain

Like every other body part, the aging brain isn’t as proficient as it used to be; it’s not as adept at learning, reacting and remembering. But like other lifestyle choices, what you eat might have an effect on how well your brain continues to remember things.

A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), shows an intriguing connection between eating what’s commonly known as the “Mediterranean” diet and holding off those “senior moments” somewhat longer.

As explained in a story on NPR, a Mediterranean diet, or one rich in vegetables, fish, whole grains, daily servings of nuts and olive oil, can help fend off age-related cognitive decline. Patrick discussed this nutritional profile in a recent newsletter.

The JAMA researchers analyzed the brain health of people in Spain who were in their 60s and 70s and had enrolled in a randomized clinical trial. That means they were assigned randomly to different groups – one ate a Mediterranean diet, plus either extra daily servings of olive oil (about four tablespoons) or daily servings of nuts. The other group ate a lower-fat diet.

All study subjects were given cognitive tests to determine various aspects of brain health, including working memory, processing speed and executive function. The latter is the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, etc. The tests were repeated after about four years.

The researchers found that the control diet group, or the people eating the lower-fat diet, did worse on their cognitive tests. The people consuming the nut-and-oil-rich Mediterranean diet retained the same cognitive test scores from several years earlier. So, although their memories didn’t improve, there was no measurable age-related decline.

Dr. JoAnn Manson, chief of the division of preventive medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a professor of medicine at Harvard University, told NPR that the study suggests that older people who make changes in their diet can benefit; that you don’t have to be a lifelong olive-oil eater to realize these results. An old dog, in other words, can learn new nutritional tricks.

The JAMA study followed up a long-term nutritional study of the effectiveness of the Mediterranean diet in seven communities in Spain. In 2013, those researchers documented that the Mediterranean diet cut the risk of heart attacks and strokes by about 30%. So a diet that seems to benefit the heart also might benefit the brain.

The Mediterranean diet also is associated with improvements in cholesterol levels, blood pressure and blood glucose regulation, which is key to keeping diabetes in check.

Still, the findings of these Mediterranean diet studies are preliminary; other factors not associated with what you eat might well affect how your cognitive skills decline, including exercise and smoking.

But diet clearly can be important in a process known as oxidative stress, when aging cells are damaged by free radicals. The JAMA researchers said that it might be possible to counteract free radicals by eating antioxidant-rich foods, thereby adding a layer of protection against “neurodegenerative disorders.”

Lots of components common in the Mediterranean diet are rich in antioxidants, including fruits, vegetables and fish, as well as nuts. Some research indicates that certain compounds in olive oil are beneficial because they might limit inflammation, a response to damaged cells.

Further studies are required to track the effect of this diet over a longer period in order to determine its effect on rates of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. But there clearly is no downside to following this nutrition regimen, which not only is tasty, it’s healthful.

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