Helping our brains stay sharp with age may be as simple as changing the food on our plates, a new study suggests.
The study focused on the healthy Mediterranean diet, a regimen reliant on olive oil, beans, nuts, fruits, vegetables and whole grains, with chicken and fish largely replacing red meat.
Dairy products and eggs are only used in low to moderate amounts according to the American Heart Association.
Nutritionists have long touted the benefits of the Med diet on various facets of health, including cardiovascular health. But a team of researchers in Scotland wanted to see whether Mediterranean fare might help the brain work better with age, too.
To do so, the team tested the cognitive ability of over 500 people averaging 79 yrs of age, none of whom showed any signs of dementia.
The tests focused on problem solving, thinking speed, memory and word knowledge, and the researchers also obtained MRI brain scans of over 350 of the participants.
“Including both cognitive ability and brain MRI markers in the one study is important, because it has the potential to further our understanding of the relationship between what we eat and cognitive aging,” explained Ms. Jaine Corley a postdoctoral researcher in psychology at the University of Edinburgh.
Participants were also asked to fill out questionnaires on what their typical diets were over the past yr.
In their initial test, people who adhered more closely to the Mediterranean diet tended to score better, the study found. While the study could not prove cause and effect, the diet was positively associated with improved performance in specific brain functions, such as memory, verbal ability and visuospatial ability, meaning people’s ability to analyze and mentally alter objects.
Even after adjusting for childhood IQ and other health and education factors, the results still showed a significant benefit to the brain for the people adhering to a Mediterranean diet compared to those who did not.
The strongest association seen was between the diet and verbal ability. However, the Mediterranean diet had no effects on the brain’s structure as shown on the MRIs.
Meaning the brain appeared to function differently depending on diet, but it did not look different.
The Big Q: What could be happening?
The Big A: According to Lona Sandon, a registered dietitian nutritionist and professor of nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern in Dallas, “We could hypothesize that it has something to do with inflammation for one, as well as with other nutrients like magnesium or folate that are found in the leafy greens.”
Ms. Sandon acknowledged the important role healthy fats, such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, appear to play in keeping the brain and body functioning at their best. These healthy fats, which are found in high amounts in the Mediterranean diet, help reduce inflammation in the body.
“This helps to protect blood vessels, and it’s not just blood vessels that lead to the heart, but blood vessels that lead to the brain and everywhere else in the body,” she said. Ms. Sandon was not involved in the new research.
Also at play may be various antioxidants, also found in abundance in the Mediterranean diet.
On the other hand, less healthy diets, those dominated by processed and junk foods could have the opposite effect, the Scottish researchers warned. That is because these types of diets tend to be high in red meat, potatoes, and sugary and fried foods.
Of these, red meat appears to be particularly unhealthy for the brain, probably because of red meat’s high level of saturated fat. Also, that processed foods are also packed with excessive salt, sugar and other components that can make them both cheap and addictive.
The Big Q2: If you have eaten an unhealthy diet most of your life, is it too late to change to a Mediterranean diet in your 60’s or even 70’s could the brain still benefit?
The Big A: It is never too late.
“Cognitive decline is a risk factor for dementia, for which there is currently no cure,” Ms. Corley said. “Therefore, strategies to prevent or delay cognitive decline, by changes in modifiable lifestyle factors such as diet, are important in terms of public health.”
Ms. Sandon added that the typical Mediterranean-diet meal can be both healthy and delicious.
“Some salmon filet that has been grilled might be on the plate. Maybe some broccoli and Brussels sprouts and tomatoes that are roasted or pan-seared. Maybe some brown rice or quinoa, and olive oil on the vegetables,” she said.
The study was published in the journal Experimental Gerontology.
Economist and regular editorial LTN contributor Bruce WD Barren advises, “Just remember, too much meat is not overly good for you either, especially as one approaches their senior years This is something I personally watch in my daily diet, and when I do eat red meat it is grass fed, Wagyu Black label, even in hot dogs which I really like.
“Last year, The World Health Organization (WHO) made headlines when it declared processed meat a “carcinogen” that increases your risk of colon or rectum cancer by 18 percent. But it’s not just processed meat that poses a health risk science has known for a while that eating all kinds of animals, including “white meat,” is bad for you. Like, really bad.
Some of the WHO reasons are:
- Meat significantly increases one’s risk of Cancer;
- It also increases your risk of heart disease and diabetes;
- Eating processed meat may make it harder to maintain a healthy body weight;
- Processed meat carries the highest risk of foodborne illness, like food poisoning;
- Most interesting, processed meat is known to contribute to erectile dysfunction in men;
- Most if not all GMO and processed meat has artificial hormones in it;
- Processed meat also may make you resistant to antibiotics; and
- A heavy and imbalanced diet of GMO and processed meat often increases the risk of an early death.
“So, a word of caution, try to eat a balanced diet, including fish at least twice a week. Plus, remember those horrible vegetables our mothers used to make us eat and for some, those meatless Fridays. Well. maybe their advice here was not so bad after all!“
Eat healthy, Be healthy, Live lively