How Eating Right Can Keep Your Brain from Aging

Study: The Mediterranean diet helps you fight brain shrinkage

smart boy with fruits wearing glasses

We all know that what you eat can have a strong influence on your health. But can your diet keep your brain from aging? A recent study is the latest among many to suggest that may be true.

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Researchers from Columbia University Medical Center asked nearly 700 people, most of whom were around age 80, to fill out a questionnaire about what they ate over the past year. About seven months later, the people underwent brain scans to measure their brain volume.

Researchers divided the men and women into two groups: one that closely followed the Mediterranean diet and one that followed just a few of the diet’s components.

Those in the group who followed the Mediterranean diet more closely had less brain atrophy. This made their brains appear to be five years younger than the others’.

RELATED: How You Can Get Started on the Mediterranean Diet

Gray matter, white matter

More specifically, the strict Mediterranean diet eaters had about 5.0 milliliters more of gray matter volume and 6.41 milliliters more of white matter. Your brain’s gray matter plays a role in brain functions such as muscle control and sensory sharpness. Your brain’s white matter oversees nerve signaling.

“The difference in brain volume in the study may not seem remarkable. But even a small change in volume might result in a substantial difference in cognition,” says Kate Zhong, MD. Dr. Zhong is Senior Director of Clinical Research and Development for the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health.

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The researchers also found that the more closely the participants followed the Mediterranean diet, the brain volume increased correspondingly.

The Mediterranean diet emphasizes fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains, with olive oil as the primary source of fat. Low- or non-fat dairy, fish and wine are consumed in low to moderate amounts. And total daily fat intake should range from 25 percent to 35 percent of total calories, with saturated fat no more than 7 percent of calories.

RELATED: How to Embrace the Mediterranean Diet

Other studies, similar results

Previous studies have linked the Mediterranean diet to better cognition. In these studies, people who follow the diet tended to score similar to people who are several years younger on cognitive tasks.

Many researchers think the beneficial effect of the Mediterranean diet on cognition likely stems from the abundance of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents that the foods provide.

For example, a recent study in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine found that people who ate a Mediterranean diet with nuts or olive oil performed better on various cognitive tasks than those who ate a low-fat diet.

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Others researchers have achieved similar results. Some studies have even suggested that the Mediterranean diet is linked to a reduced risk of dementia.

“Everyone experiences brain changes as we age, and evidence continues to accumulate that we can impact that process in a positive way through mindful, healthy eating habits,” Dr. Zhong says.

More information

Guide to brain health

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