According to a study in the February issue of Archives of Neurology, one of the JAMA/Archives journals, a Mediterranean-style diet (MeDi) may be healthier for the brain. Researchers have discovered that a MeDi diet is associated with reduced damage of small blood vessels in the brain.

White matter hyperintensities (WMHs) are markers of chronic small vessel damage and can be seen using brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

The researchers explain:

“Although diet may be an important predictor of vascular disease, little is known about the possible association between dietary habits and WMHs. Studies have suggested that consumption of a MeDi [Mediterranean Diet] is associated with a reduced risk of the metabolic syndrome, coronary heart disease, stroke and cognitive disorders, but no studies to date, to our knowledge, have examined the association between a MeDi and WMH volume (WMHV).”

To examine this association, data from 966 participants in the Northern Manhattan Study were assessed by Hannah Gardener, Sc.D., of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and her team. In order to evaluate dietary patterns during the previous year, the researchers gave participants a food frequency questionnaire. The researchers then used the answers from the questionnaire to determine a MeDi compliance score. The team measured WMHV by quantitative brain MRI.

The researchers found that on a MeDi scale from 0 to 10:

  • 11.6% of participants scored 0 to 2
  • 15.8% scored 3
  • 23% scored 4
  • 23.5% scored 5
  • and 26.1% of participants scored between 6 to 9

In addition they discovered that men and had higher MeDi scores than women, as well as those who reported moderate to heavy levels of physical activity. Furthermore, results showed that individuals with a MeDi score of 6+ had lower BMI.

Results from the study indicate that among participants, those who consume a MeDi have a lower burden of WMHV. This connection was independent of vascular and sociodemographic risk factors including smoking, blood lipid levels, physical activity, BMI, history of cardiac disease, hypertension, and diabetes. The researchers found that the only component of the MeDi score that was independently linked to WMHV was the ratio of monounsaturated to saturated fat.

The researchers conclude:

“In summary, the current study suggests a possible protective association between increased consumption of a MeDi and small vessel damage. The associations with WMHV may be driven by the favorable ratio of monounsaturated fat consumption over saturated fat.

However, the results of the analysis of the individual MeDi scale components suggests that the overall dietary pattern, rather than any of the individual components, may be more etiologically relevant in relation to WMHV.”

Written by Grace Rattue