The Mediterranean Diet Might Be the Secret to Living Longer — and Better

A new study shows that the Mediterranean diet lowers the risk of memory issues as you age. (Photo: Getty Images)
A new study shows that the Mediterranean diet lowers the risk of memory issues as you age. (Photo: Getty Images)

You’ve probably heard at some point that the Mediterranean diet is good for your overall health, and maybe you’ve tried to incorporate some elements of the plan into your meals as a result. Now, there’s more research that shows some additional perks to following this healthy eating plan: It can lower the risk of having memory issues as you get older.

That’s the major finding of a new study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, which examined dietary information from nearly 6,000 older adults who participated in the Health and Retirement Study. The researchers then took those findings and compared them with the participants’ mental abilities, largely with their memory and attention skills.

The researchers found that older people who ate either a Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, lean proteins, and olive oil, or a MIND diet, which stresses 10 brain-healthy foods found in the Mediterranean and DASH diets, scored better on the cognitive function tests than those who ate less healthy diets. The results were pretty significant, too: Older people who ate a Mediterranean diet had a 35 percent lower risk of scoring poorly on cognitive tests. The impact was even found in those who ate a Mediterranean-style diet: Those older people had a 15 percent lower risk of performing poorly on the cognitive tests. The results were similar for people on MIND-style diets as well.

According to Harvard University, the DASH diet includes “foods low in total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol, and lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Protein is supplied by low-fat dairy, fish, poultry, and nuts. Red meat, sweets, and sugary drinks are limited. DASH is high in fiber, potassium, calcium, and magnesium and low in sodium.”

“These healthy diets are typically rich in antioxidant vitamins and minerals and other bioactive compounds that are good for heart health, and this, in turn, is thought to benefit the brain, especially during aging,” lead study author Claire McEvoy, a research fellow at Queen’s University Belfast, tells Yahoo Beauty. “The Mediterranean diet is also shown to have anti-inflammatory effects that could also be good for long-term brain health.”

Both diets encourage followers to minimize processed foods, fast foods, snacks, and red meat, and stress healthy eating habits overall. “They’re a very lifestyle-focused approach to eating, and that works really well for people,” New York-based registered dietitian Jessica Cording tells Yahoo Beauty. The MIND diet, in particular, tells people which foods are beneficial (green leafy vegetables, other vegetables, nuts, berries, beans, whole grains, seafood, poultry, olive oil, and wine) and which are not (red meat, butter and stick margarine, cheese, pastries, sweets, and fried or fast foods), which is especially helpful, she says.

Women’s health expert Jennifer Wider, MD, tells Yahoo Beauty that she’s not surprised by the findings. “Our foods can have a dramatic impact on our mind and body,” she says. “Both the Mediterranean and MIND diets contain nutrients that have been proven in many studies to be good for the body, the waistline, and, in some studies, have shown to slow cognitive decline and potentially ward off Alzheimer’s disease.”

Research has also found that the Mediterranean diet can lower a person’s risk of developing heart disease, which is responsible for one in four deaths in the U.S., per data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It’s worth noting that while research has repeatedly found benefits of following the Mediterranean diet, this is the first that has touted the benefits of the MIND diet. (Although, as Cording points out, the MIND diet is a hybrid of the Mediterranean diet.) Foods that are emphasized in the MIND diet have been linked to a lowered risk of heart disease and better weight and diabetes management, Cording says, and many of these foods also have anti-inflammatory properties.

Study co-author Heidi Guyer, a doctoral student at the University of Michigan, tells Yahoo Beauty that one diet isn’t necessarily better than the other. “You would need to take a person’s health status and other health conditions into account as well,” she says. “However, on their own, each are considered healthy diets.”

If you’re interested in trying either the Mediterranean diet or the MIND diet, Cording recommends familiarizing yourself with the diet of your choice and thinking about how to apply the guidelines to your everyday life. The MIND diet, for example, emphasizes berries, so it’s important to think about how you can fit them into your regular diet if you aren’t having them already. It also doesn’t hurt to reach out to a dietitian for help — Cording says a dietitian can guide you with just one session.

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