Mediterranean Diet May Boost Brain Power

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Mediterranean diet has been associated with everything from increased longevity to reduced cancer risk. Switching to a Mediterranean diet can boost and preserve brain power in old age more effectively than a low-fat diet, researchers claim.

A Mediterranean diet with added extra virgin olive oil or mixed nuts seems to improve the brain power of older people better than advising them to follow a low-fat diet, according to a new research. The researchers from the University of Navarra in Spain base their findings on 522 men and women aged between 55 and 80 without cardiovascular disease but at high vascular risk because of underlying disease/conditions.

These included either type 2 diabetes or three of the following: high blood pressure; an unfavorable blood fat profile; overweight; a family history of early cardiovascular disease; and being a smoker.

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A Mediterranean diet is characterized by the use of virgin olive oil as the main culinary fat; high consumption of fruits, nuts, vegetables and pulses; moderate to high consumption of fish and seafood; low consumption of dairy products and red meat; and moderate intake of red wine.

After an average of 6.5 years, they were tested for signs of cognitive decline using a Mini Mental State Exam and a clock drawing test, which assess higher brain functions, including orientation, memory, language, visuospatial and visuoconstrution abilities and executive functions such as working memory, attention span, and abstract thinking.At the end of the study period, 60 participants had developed mild cognitive impairment: 18 on the olive oil supplemented Mediterranean diet; 19 on the diet with added mixed nuts; and 23 on the control group.

However, while the results are promising, the results showed only a small one-point difference in the scores of those who were on the Mediterranean diet and those who were on the traditional low-fat diet, said Mary Sano, PhD, director of Alzheimer’s Disease Research at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. The test is scored out of 30, and while the benefit is there, she said, it may be too small to actively recommend the Mediterranean diet.

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”It may be difficult to motivate diet compliance for such a small effect,” she said. “Nevertheless, this, combined with other positive findings, supports the use of this specific diet to maintain health.”

The diet appears to be superior over just antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids alone, so it likely combines several neuroprotective elements,” he said. “Much like exhaust from a car damages the ozone, elements in the Mediterranean diet act like a muffler and neutralizes the free radicals so they cause less damage to the brain.” The benefits of the Mediterranean diet are well-documented, said Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA,RDN,

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“What helps the heart helps the brain,” she said. “What this is showing is that when you eat foods that are anti-inflammatory and filled with antioxidants, they help keep your blood flowing and help your brain.”

Researchers from the University of Navarra, Spain, who published the findings online in the Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, claim it is the first long-term trial to look at the impact of the Mediterranean diet on brain power. Study leader Professor Miguel Martinez-Gonzalez said: ‘Our findings support increasing evidence on the protective effects of the Mediterranean diet on cognitive function.’

Olive oil is known to contain omega-6 fats – ‘healthy’ polyunsaturates that can combat conditions such as heart disease and arthritis and help reduce blood pressure.Other research has also linked olive oil to lower rates of the bone-weakening condition osteoporosis in the Mediterranean, where people also eat less red meat and dairy products, compared with northern Europe.

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The researchers acknowledge that their sample size was relatively small, and that because the study involved a group at high vascular risk, it doesn’t necessarily follow that their findings are applicable to the general population.

But they said, theirs is the first long term trial to look at the impact of the Mediterranean diet on brain power, and that it adds to the increasing body of evidence suggesting that a high quality dietary pattern seems to protect cognitive function in the ageing brain.

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