The popular Mediterranean diet may do more than help you lose weight — it may keep your brain healthier later in life.
According to researchers from the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases, those who adhere to the Mediterranean diet dramatically reduce their risk of developing dementia later in life. The findings were published in May in Neurology,
“Our study suggests that eating a diet that’s high in unsaturated fats, fish, fruits and vegetables and low in dairy and red meat may actually protect your brain from the protein build-up that can lead to memory loss and dementia,” study author Tommaso Ballarini, a postdoctoral researcher at the center, said in a press release. “These results add to the body of evidence that show what you eat may influence your memory skills later on.”
A dietary approach to dementia prevention
Of the 512 people involved in the new study, 343 had a higher risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease. (The mean age for participants was about 69.) After an average of about 42 weeks, participants who had an unhealthy diet exhibited more dementia biomarkers than those who regularly ate foods associated with the Mediterranean diet — and that applied to all subjects, not just the ones at higher risk of dementia. The group that ate unhealthily also performed worse on memory tests.
Researchers said the Mediterranean diet seemed to increase the volume of the hippocampus, which is a region of the brain important to learning and memory. The foods associated with Mediterranean cuisine may
reduce protein deposits and brain atrophy that can cause memory loss and dementia as we age, they suggested. In patients with dementia, the hippocampus begins to shrink rapidly, hindering their ability to function.
“More research is needed to show the mechanism by which a Mediterranean diet protects the brain from protein build-up and loss of brain function, but findings suggest that people may reduce their risk for developing Alzheimer’s by incorporating more elements of the Mediterranean diet into their daily diets,” Ballarini said.
The study rated the subjects’ diets on nine-point scale, with a full nine for those who adhered most closely to the Mediterranean diet. Even after adjusting for factors like age, sex, and education, Ballarini and his team found that each point on the study’s diet scale was equivalent to a year of brain aging — meaning that those who scored close to zero on the scale saw their brains effectively age almost a decade..
Additionally, longtime followers of the Mediterranean diet demonstrated an increased resistance toward the build-up of two proteins associated with dementia. Over time, these proteins cause memory loss and the gradual loss of motor function.
The fish, legumes, whole grains, oil, and vegetables associated with Mediterranean cuisine also appeared to cause reductions in oxidative damage, inflammation, and even excessive weight in the study participants
The diet was inspired by the foods that were commonly eaten by Italians and Greeks in the 1960s. The basics are: limited red meat; moderate amounts of poultry, eggs, and cheese; no processed meat, refined grains, or oils; and no sugar-sweetened beverages. Subscribers can eat all they want of vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, potatoes, whole grains, bread, herbs, spices, fish, seafood, and extra virgin olive oil.