Following a Mediterranean-style diet may protect against brain shrinkage, according to researchers.
A Mediterranean diet typically involves high consumption of fish and seafood, plant-based foods - such as fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and legumes - replacing butter with healthy fats, such as olive oil, while limiting consumption of red meats and dairy products.
The potential benefits of such a diet are well documented. Last month, Medical News Today reported on a study claiming a Mediterranean diet can promote a healthy gut, while another study linked a Mediterranean diet with olive oil to reduced risk of breast cancer.
For this latest study, Yian Gu, of Columbia University in New York, NY, and colleagues set out to investigate the effects of a Mediterranean diet against brain shrinkage - the loss of brain cells that typically occurs as we age.
The team enrolled 674 individuals of an average age of 80 who were free of dementia and asked them to complete a questionnaire detailing their dietary habits over the past year.
The researchers split the participants into two groups. One group included subjects who followed at least five components of the Mediterranean diet, while the other group included participants whose diet did not closely follow the Mediterranean diet.
Mediterranean-style diet protected against 5 years of brain aging
Around 7 months after the dietary questionnaire was completed, the participants underwent brain scans, enabling the researchers to assess their total brain volume.
Compared with participants who did not follow a Mediterranean-style diet, those who followed at least five components of the diet had a total brain volume that was around 13.11 mm larger; the gray matter volume of these subjects was 5 mm larger, while their white matter volume was 6.41 mm larger.
Gu says the differences in brain volume identified between the two groups were the equivalent to around 5 years of aging, indicating that the participants who followed the Mediterranean-style diet were protected against 5 years of age-related brain shrinkage.
Specifically, the team found that adhering to certain dietary patterns within the bounds of the Mediterranean diet positively impacted brain shrinkage. For example, consuming at least three to five portions of fish weekly and eating a maximum of 3.5 ounces of meat daily was found to protect against brain cell loss the equivalent to around 3-4 years of aging.
While Gu admits their study does not prove a causal link between a Mediterranean diet and prevention of brain shrinkage, they do indicate a significant association between the two. He adds:
"These results are exciting, as they raise the possibility that people may potentially prevent brain shrinking and the effects of aging on the brain simply by following a healthy diet."
Earlier this year, MNT reported on a study suggesting that a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil or mixed nuts may protect memory for older adults.