Study Finds That Mediterranean Diet Could Prevent Brain Atrophy

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Jan 06, 2017 05:44 AM EST

A meal of fried sardines with tehina sauce, fresh pita, a cucumber and tomato salad, olives and pickles is served in a restaurant in the local produce market February 22, 2006 in Netanya in central Israel. (Photo : Getty Images/David Silverman)

A recent study suggests that Mediterranean diet prevents brain atrophy, and could protect against certain changes to the brain in older age.

Mediterranean diet is a modern nutritional recommendation that includes high consumption of olive oil, legumes, unrefined cereals, fruits, vegetables, moderate consumption of fish, dairy products, wine and low consumption of non-fish, meat products.

There is tentative evidence that Mediterranean diet lowers the risk of heart disease and early death. However, the new study has found that the diet helps to preserve brain volume in elderly adults.

Studies have suggests that components of the Mediterranean diet, either in isolation or taken together, can have a beneficial effect on various aspects of human health. There is evidence that the consumption of olive oil lowers all-cause mortality and the risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, neurodegeneration, and several other diseases.

The traditional Mediterranean diet has also been shown to improve cardiometabolic health. Studies ranging from observational to randomized trials has prove that the diet reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes, obesity, aid weight loss, and contribute to the prevention of cardiovascular disease, according to MNT.

The researchers, led by Michelle Luciano, Ph.D. of the University of Edinburgh in Scotland looks specifically at the benefits of the Mediterranean diet on brain health in elderly adults. They checked the effects of the diet on total brain volume, gray matter volume, and thickness of the cortex.

The human brain shrinks as a person grows older and more and more of its cells die which may cause problems with learning and memory retention, the study authors explain.

The study was conducted on 967 people aged between 73 and 76 years old, who lived in Scotland and who did not have dementia, for a period of 3 years. The participants were asked to complete food questionnaires three years before collecting data on their brain volume.

Of the participants, 562 had a magnetic resonance imaging brain scan that measured the total brain volume, gray matter volume, and cortical thickness at the age of 73 and 401 had a second brain scan at age 76.

Their dietary habits were calculated using a food frequency questionnaire. The brain measurements were compared to how well the participants adhered to the diet during the period of the study. Mediterranean diet accounts for 0.5 percent change of total brain volume.

The researchers found a correlation between Mediterranean diet adherence and brain volume. The participants who did not maintain the diet closely were likely to develop brain atrophy over the 3-year interval. These participants have a risk of 0.5 percent greater reduction in total brain volume compared to those who had adhered to the diet.

A 0.5 percent decrease in the volume of the brain is half the size of what is considered normal due to the natural aging process. The researchers noted that other factors might have influenced the changes in brain volume such as age, education, and medical conditions such as diabetes or hypertension.

The study found no relationship between the diet and gray matter volume or thickness of the cortex. It does not also find any correlation between fish and meat consumption and changes in brain volume, which invariably means other individual components of the diet or all of its components taken together, might be responsible for the association.

However, unlike previous studies which measured the brain at a point in time, this study examined changes in brain volume over time, according to Daily Health Advisors.

The participant's eating habits were measured before brain volume, which suggests that the diet may be able to provide long term protection to the brain, according to Michelle Luciano, Ph.D.  Further studies are necessary to confirm these results.

The researchers published their findings in the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

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