Mediterranean Diet Improves Brain Health, According To New Study

Posted: Updated:
Print Article

Time to stock up on fresh veggies, fish, whole grains, legumes and olive oil: not only is the so-called 'Mediterranean diet' healthy for your heart, a new study reveals that it may also help prevent cognitive decline.

Research published this month in the Archives of Neurology found that people who eat according to the traditional (rather than modern) cuisine of countries like Italy, Greece and Spain have less small blood vessel damage in the brain than those who follow typical American diets, full of saturated fats, red meat and refined grains.

Researchers from Columbia University and University of Miami looked at the diets of 966 adults who filled out questionnaires about their food choices as part of the Northern Manhattan Study, a longitudinal cohort study that's focusing on how behavior affects long-term health. They sorted the group based on how closely their diets resembled a classic Mediterranean diet, which includes fresh fruit and vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, whole grains, fish, olive oil and a moderate amount of alcohol. This diet doesn't include a great deal of red meat, sweets, refined sugar and wheat, or rice.

Each participant was then given an MRI scan, where researchers looked at what's called "white matter hyperintensities," which are tiny markers that are visible on the scan and indicate damage to smaller blood vessels. That kind of damage is thought to be a major contributor to "silent strokes" -- the kind of vascular event that doesn’t lead to immediate symptoms or dramatic damage, but can affect brain performance over time.

Researchers found that a high ratio of monounsaturated (olive oil, nuts or avocados) to saturated fat (red meat, dairy) had a protective effect in particular: those who had the highest ratios also had the lowest amount of small blood vessel damage.

It's important to remember that this is merely an association -- not a causal relationship. More study is needed to determine exactly how the diet relates to white matter hyperintensities and, further, cognitive performance.