It is more than just a colorful flavor-sensation; the Mediterranean diet is associated with a healthier, and even longer life. As if we needed any more excuses to trade in greasy junk food for this wholesome and nutritious diet: it could help postpone age-related cognitive decline. According to a new study, a Mediterranean diet supplemented with a handful of nuts or a glug of olive oil is linked with improved cognitive function in an older population. Of course, this doesn’t mean that if you stick to this diet like glue, you won’t get dementia. But the study is interesting and certainly warrants further investigation. The findings have been published in JAMA Internal Medicine.
Veggies, fruits, nuts, whole grains, olive oil, lean meats and beans, all washed down with a slurp of red wine (consumed in moderation, of course). These are the essences of the famed “Mediterranean diet,” which is shrouded in both glory and myths over its ever-extending list of supposed health benefits. There’s plenty of evidence – 1.5 million adults’ worth, in fact—that it helps prevent heart disease and stroke, and it seems that it’s even associated with a reduced risk of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
The main reasons that scientists believe it could bestow so many benefits to our bodies are that it’s rich in antioxidants, which help prevent our cells from a type of damage called oxidative stress, and that it may improve cholesterol and boost blood vessel health. Considering oxidative stress, which is caused by harmful oxygen-containing molecules, and impaired blood vessels are both thought to play a role in the development of age-related declines in cognitive function, scientists wondered whether this antioxidant-rich Mediterranean diet may help delay this process.
To find out more, researchers in Spain enrolled 447 cognitively healthy older adults at high cardiovascular risk into a randomized clinical trial. All volunteers, who had an average age of 67, were given a neuropsychological assessment at the onset of the study. Participants were then randomly assigned into 3 groups: a Mediterranean diet supplemented with one liter of extra virgin olive oil per week (155 participants), a Mediterranean diet supplemented with a handful of mixed nuts (30g) per day (147), or a low fat control diet (145). To follow a Mediterranean diet, lots of plant-based foods must be consumed, such as whole grains, vegetables and fruits, red meat is reduced and poultry or fish are eaten at least twice a week.
Throughout the duration of the study, which lasted for an average of 4 years, participants were regularly subjected to various tests of cognitive function to examine how it changed over time. This allowed the researchers to measure things like memory, attention, problem solving and reasoning. A total of 334 participants completed the study, so analyses were based on these individuals only.
Although 37 cases of mild cognitive impairment were apparent at the end of the investigation, no one developed dementia. Those assigned the control diet were found to experience a significant decline across all aspects of cognitive decline measured in the study. Conversely, those on the Mediterranean diet plus nuts experienced an improvement in memory, and consuming the extra olive oil benefitted from an improvement in global cognition. Together, this indicates that such diets could counter age-related cognitive decline, the authors concluded.
“The lack of effective treatments for cognitive decline and dementia points to the need of preventive strategies to delay the onset and/ or minimize the effects of these devastating conditions,” the authors write. ”The present results with the Mediterranean diet are encouraging but further investigation is warranted.”