Mediterranean Diet May Ward Off Brain Shrinkage, Study Shows

Jenna Birch
·Contributing Writer
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Whether you’re in your 80s or in your 20s, it’s never too late (or too early) to adopt a diet that’ll keep your mind stronger, longer. (Photo: Getty Images)

Five standards of the Mediterranean diet, five fewer years of brain shrinkage. According to a promising new study published in the journal Neurology, it might be that easy to make a substantial difference in your cognitive health.

How easy, exactly? Here’s how the study worked: Researchers had 674 older men and women (with an average age of 80) answer questionnaires about their general diet over the previous year. Roughly seven months later, they were also asked to take part in brain scans to measure each participant’s brain volume.

The men and women were divided into two groups, based on how closely they followed the Mediterranean diet. The first group held true to the Med diet’s principles in at least five key food guidelines, either consuming more of the regimen’s classic healthy foods or eating fewer unhealthy foods. The second group adhered to the plan’s principles in just four or fewer components. There were nine principles tracked in total, each assigned a score of one:

High Intake

  • vegetables

  • legumes

  • fruits/nuts

  • cereals (unrefined, whole grains)

  • fish and monounsaturated fats (olive oil, avocado, etc.)

Low Intake

  • saturated fats

  • dairy products

  • meat and poultry

  • alcohol (mild to moderate intake)

Those in the group who followed the Mediterranean diet more closely had higher total brain volumes than those who followed less closely, equating to roughly 5.0 milliliters higher gray matter volumes and 6.41 milliliters higher white matter. Gray matter is essential in key brain functions like muscle control and sensory sharpness, while white matter is involved in nerve signaling.

The gap in brain-matter volume between those who adhered strongly to the Med diet and those who didn’t was small on paper — but mighty when you actually break out the numbers, according to study author Yian Gu, PhD, an assistant professor of neuropsychology at Columbia University and a member of the American Academy of Neurology.

Related: Meet the MIND Diet for Better Memory

“The magnitude of the difference in brain measures between these two groups is comparable to that between two average people five years apart in age,” she tells Yahoo Health. “We also found that each one unit increase in the Mediterranean diet score was also associated with larger brain volume. This means the more you adhere to the Mediterranean diet, the more protection you will get for your brain.”

The researchers note that higher fish intake and lower meat intake may be particularly beneficial in protecting the brain. Fish contains important B vitamins and vitamin D, which the authors say may prevent brain atrophy. On the other hand, many cooked meats are prone to the formation of advanced glycation end products (AGE), which may ultimately lead to degenerative issues like inflammation and insulin resistance that negatively affect brain health.

This current research was an observational study of the potential compounding factors that may have impacted brain health. However, evidence that suggests Mediterranean-type diets offer a host of health benefits (cognitive or otherwise) is piling up by the day, says Gu.

When in doubt while choosing what to eat or avoid, if it’s listed as a component of the Med diet, you’re probably in good shape. “For example, use olive oil instead of saturated animal fat, consume more fish, nuts, vegetables, and fruits,” Gu says. “These are all key principles of Mediterranean diet.”

Related: Early Signs of Alzheimer’s Disease Found in Patients as Young as 20

The Mediterranean diet has long been the gold standard for overall health and wellness. However, more specifically, recent research is beginning to suggest the regimen — and adaptations taking into account its key principles and foods, like the MIND diet — may help keep your brain stronger for longer. Whether you’re in your 80s or in your 20s, it’s never too late to start enacting prevention strategies.

According to Brendan Kelley, MD, a cognitive neurologist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, who specializes in the treatment of patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s, this new study emphasizes the vast potential in eating healthfully to eradicate disease.

“This sits really well with the previous research on diet’s link to Alzheimer’s and dementia — that the Mediterranean dietary pattern, with things like ample whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, can help lower the risk of disease,” he tells Yahoo Health. “There’s even evidence to show that this type of diet can help slow the progression of the disease, in those who already have Alzheimer’s.”

According to Kelley, what’s neat about the Med diet is that it’s consistently reliable in studies, promoting brain health regardless of the population — and he thinks there might be a simple reason for that. “You’re getting a lot of nutrients together,” he explains. “There have been a lot of studies trying to pinpoint one type of food or nutrient, but when you’re getting many nutrients all at once, they work in concert to promote brain health.”

However, although continuously consuming nutrients in concert is a great strategy, science is starting to support certain foods as vital components of our “brain health” diet, as well, according to Lauren Popeck, RD, a dietitian at Orlando Health.

Popeck says these foods include blueberries, which are high in antioxidants that improve memory; dark, leafy greens like spinach, which are packed with inflammation-fighting folate; and dark chocolate (with 70 percent or greater cacao), which contains resveratrol and flavonoids to increase blood flow to the brain.

“Green tea is another good addition, containing catechins and polyphenols that boost our dopamine levels,” she tells Yahoo Health. “This helps to increase memory and concentration. In addition, the tea’s antioxidants may prevent cellular damage.”

But back to the latest research, which is yet another puzzle piece in figuring out how to stop diseases like Alzheimer’s from developing and progressing. The more we can bolster existing research that shows healthy diets like the Med prevent cognitive decline, the better off we’ll be, according to Gu.

“I think there is a strong message that while it is important to keep searching for effective treatments and cures for diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, it is equally, if not more, important to explore modifiable lifestyle factors, such as diet, that can help people to prevent the development of diseases,” Gu explains, adding, “it’s maybe even more promising.”

Kelley would agree. “Some estimates show that if by 2025 we’re able to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s by just five years — not even cure it, just delay it — it would cut in half the number of people who would develop the disease by 2050,” he explains. “That would reduce the number of people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s from roughly 13 to 14 million to around 7.5 to 8 million.”

Little changes make a big difference for your brain health, says Kelley, which is something to keep in mind the next time you hit the kitchen.

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