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Mediterranean diet reduces brain shrinkage in elderly

Elderly who followed Mediterranean diet retained more brain volume over a three year period

Ingrid Torjesen

Thursday, 05 January 2017

Pensioners in Scotland who followed a Mediterranean diet lost less brain volume over a three year period than those who did not follow the diet as closely, a study published in the journal Neurology shows.

The study was based on 967 Scottish people in the Lothian Birth Cohort of 1936 aged around 70 and who did not have dementia. Participants completed a questionnaire about their eating habits. Three years later at around age 73, 562 of them agreed to have a MRI brain scan, and 401 people returned for a second MRI when aged 76. 

The two MRI scans were compared to reveal information about changes to brain structure during the three years between when the scans took place, and this information was then compared with how closely participants had followed the Mediterranean diet. 

Those people who didn’t follow the Mediterranean diet as closely were more likely to have lost more total brain volume over the three year period between the scans than people who followed the diet more closely, the results revealed.  The difference in diet explained 0.5% of the variation in total brain volume (p < 0.05), an effect that was half the size of that due to normal aging. The relationship remained after the results were adjusted for factors that could affect brain volume, such as age, education and having diabetes or high blood pressure.

Dr David Reynolds, Chief Scientific Officer at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “A Mediterranean-style diet that is low in meat and dairy but rich in fresh fruit and vegetables, cereals, beans, nuts and ‘healthy’ fats like olive oil, has been linked to a range of health benefits.  This study adds to previous research highlighting the importance of this kind of well-balanced diet in maintaining a healthy brain as we age.  While the study points to diet having a small effect on changes in brain size, it didn’t look at the effect on risk of dementia.  We would need to see follow-up studies in order to investigate any potential protective effects against problems with memory and thinking.”

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