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Image Credit: Mediterranean Diet. Copyright Sciworthy 2021.

When it comes to healthy aging, several lifestyle factors can play a key role in managing disease risk. For example, exercise, getting enough sleep, and maintaining a healthy body weight are all linked to the reduction of diseases of aging. There is evidence that a Mediterranean diet is also linked to a number of improved health outcomes.

The Mediterranean diet is a diet which is high in fruit, vegetables, and seafood, while also limiting the consumption of red meat, dairy, and sugar. For one, a Mediterranean diet is found to be beneficial towards heart health, and leads to a reduction in the risk for cardiovascular diseases, including heart attack and stroke. It has even been linked to the prevention of diabetes. Interestingly, a Mediterranean diet has also been suggested to reduce the risk of many cancers, such as colorectal cancer and breast cancer. Now, recent research indicates that a Mediterranean diet may also be beneficial towards maintaining brain health, through reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive impairment in older age.

Recently, researchers at the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases conducted a study in which they analyzed data on 512 seniors with an average age of 69.5. The researchers compared whether the seniors’ adherence to a Mediterranean diet impacted their brain health using a number of measures, such as cognitive performance, brain volume, and some Alzheimer’s disease-related biomarkers, which are biological compounds that indicate the presence of a disease.

Participants answered a questionnaire about their diet over the span of a month, which researchers used to determine how well participants adhered to a Mediterranean diet. Next, researchers administered a neuropsychological test to measure participants’ cognitive performance in aspects such as memory, language, and visuospatial abilities. They also used a medical imaging technique known as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to examine whether the participants’ volume, or amount, of brain matter was different in those who consumed heavily Mediterranean diets versus those that did not. Lastly, the researchers looked at two proteins, named β-amyloid and tau, which are associated with Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers collected the participants’ cerebrospinal fluid, a fluid which surrounds the brain and spinal cord, to analyze the amount of biomarkers in each person.

The researchers found that patients who had a higher adherence to a Mediterranean diet showed several indicators of better brain health. Those participants who more strictly followed a Mediterranean diet had larger brain volumes as well as better memory. Interestingly, participants who consumed a more Mediterranean diet also had less Alzheimer’s disease-related biomarkers, as measured through β-amyloid and tau. Overall, the researchers conclude that following a Mediterranean diet can protect against Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive impairment in older age.

This research adds to growing evidence that lifestyle factors impact brain health and the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. For example, physical activity and exercise have also been demonstrated to reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Now, emerging research suggests that beyond benefits for your heart and reducing cancer risk, the consumption of a Mediterranean diet may also be beneficial for your brain. As further research uncovers the mechanisms behind why diet and exercise can play such a key role in maintaining brain health as we age, it’s possible that fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and fish may just be what the neurologist ordered.

Study Information

Original study:

Study published on: May 5, 2021

Study author(s): Tommaso Ballarini, PhD, Debora Melo van Lent, PhD, Julia Brunner, MSc, Alina Schr¨oder, MSc, Steffen Wolfsgruber, PhD, Slawek Altenstein, Dipl-Psych, Frederic Brosseron, PhD, Katharina Buerger, MD, Peter Dechent, PhD, Laura Dobisch, MSc, Emrah D¨uzel, MD, Birgit Ertl-Wagner, MD, Klaus Fliessbach, MD, Silka Dawn Freiesleben, MSc, Ingo Frommann, Dipl-Psych, Wenzel Glanz, MD, Dietmar Hauser, Dipl-Psych, John Dylan Haynes, PhD, Michael T. Heneka, MD, Daniel Janowitz, MD, Ingo Kilimann, MD, Christoph Laske, MD, Franziska Maier, MD, Coraline Danielle Metzger, MD, Matthias H. Munk, MD, Robert Perneczky, MD, Oliver Peters, MD, Josef Priller, MD, Alfredo Ramirez, MD, Boris-Stephan Rauchmann, MD, Nina Roy, PhD, Klaus Scheffler, PhD, Anja Schneider, MD, Annika Spottke, MD, Eike Jakob Spruth, MD, Stefan J. Teipel, MD, Ruth Vukovich, MD, Jens Wiltfang, MD, Frank Jessen, MD, and Michael Wagner, PhD, on behalf of the DELCODE Study Group

The study was done at: University of Texas Health Science Center (USA), and German institutions as follows: German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE), Georg-August-University, Ludwig-Maximilians-University, Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience, University of Cologne, University of Tubingen

The study was funded by: Study funded by the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (Deutsches zentrum für Neurodegenerative Erkrankungen [DZNE]) and German Federal Ministry of Education and Research

Raw data availability: Open data link not available

Featured image credit: Mediterranean Diet. Copyright Sciworthy 2021.