The benefits of the Mediterranean diet are almost endless. This particular diet can potentially slow the aging process, lower your mortality risk, improve your sleep, better your heart health and more, meaning it’s a hugely beneficial way of eating. Now, there’s even bigger news: sticking with the Mediterranean diet could help you keep your brain healthy as you grow older.
New research indicates that the Mediterranean diet may be able to combat some common – and serious – cognitive issues and ailments like Alzheimer’s disease later in life. Here’s how the foods and habits of the Mediterranean diet can positively impact your brain health and set you up for good health as you age.
Cognitive issues can change your brain’s size and function
Researchers are still digging into the exact causes behind Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. One probable cause is the death of neurons in the brain. Beta-amyloid proteins create plaques between brain neurons, while tau proteins form similar sticky clumps inside the neurons. Together, these deposits can potentially lead to the cognitive issues associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
Brain atrophy, or the brain shrinking in volume, is another important factor. As the brain grows smaller, changes and symptoms like memory loss, disorientation, agitation and challenging behavior can appear in individuals.
However, the Mediterranean diet may be able to prevent or combat both of these brain problems.
The Mediterranean diet may prevent brain changes related to Alzheimer’s disease
Both the protein plaques and the loss of brain volume can be indicators of serious cognitive issues. But if you fine-tune your diet, you may be able to reduce the risks of these two specific factors.
A 2021 research study published in Neurology examined the impact of a Mediterranean-like diet consisting of vegetables, legumes, fruit, cereals, fish and monounsaturated fatty acids (like olive oil) on brain protein deposits and brain atrophy. Out of the 512 study participants, all of whom were around 70 years old, 169 were in good cognitive health while 343 had a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, with markers like memory impairment, mild cognitive impairment or relatives diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Researchers gave the participants a survey to gauge their dietary habits and frequently eaten foods.
From there, the scientists examined the participants for brain atrophy, measuring brain volume via MRIs, and vetted their cognitive abilities via neuropsychological tests. They also tested participants’ biomarker levels, measuring any beta-amyloid proteins and tau proteins present in the cerebrospinal fluid.
The study’s results showed that participants who self-reported unhealthy diets were more at risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Those on unhealthy diets had higher levels of the beta-amyloid and tau proteins that can play a role in brain neuron death. They also performed worse in cognitive tests – specifically memory tests.
The participants who self-reported eating the foods of the Mediterranean diet – fish, veggies, and fruit with only occasional red meat consumption – saw different results. Those who regularly ate Mediterranean-friendly foods had a higher hippocampus volume, the part of the brain that’s most closely connected to memory. They also performed better on cognitive and memory tests. Overall, researchers noted that those who followed the Mediterranean diet most closely saw the most positive results.
While more research is needed to solidify this potential connection between the Mediterranean diet and a possible reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease, the study’s results are a positive step forward. Sticking with Mediterranean habits may have a positive impact on brain aging, which in turn may help stave off common cognitive decline issues.
Fish and vegetables play a particularly important role in your brain’s health
One of the standout findings of this research study is the importance of eating fish and vegetables. The participants who didn’t eat fish and veggies regularly performed worse, and these two specific foods appeared to have a positive impact on both brain volume and neuron-disrupting proteins.
And this isn’t the only research that shows a positive connection between the Mediterranean diet and better brain health. A 2020 study conducted by scientists at the National Eye Institute set out to examine the effects of this diet on eye health – and they ended up with some surprising brain health findings. Over the course of 10 years, researchers studied 4,000 participants and checked their brain function. By the study’s end, participants who followed a Mediterranean-style diet (specifically, eating a diet rich in fish) were found to have higher cognitive function and experienced slower cognitive decline. They also saw the lowest risk of cognitive impairment.
So, if you’re hoping to give your brain a potentially protective boost that’ll keep you healthy well into the future, the key could be a Mediterranean way of eating. Specifically, increasing how much fish you eat. Veggies are another excellent choice for your brain. Kale, spinach, collard greens and broccoli are particularly nutritious for the brain, and they’re all Mediterranean-approved.
While there’s no single food that can magically keep your brain sharp and healthy as you age, the Mediterranean diet does highlight all of the right options. Along with seafood and vegetables, it’s also a good idea to regularly incorporate fruits, legumes and whole grains into your meals. You can look for foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants as well, which are two nutrients that can benefit your brain.
To keep your brain in its best possible health, learn more: