Add one more benefit to eating a Mediterranean diet—a reduced risk of mental decline with age.
A large study of people living in the Stroke Belt (a region in Southeastern U.S. where health officials have found a higher incidence of strokes) found that in healthy people, those who more closely followed the Mediterranean diet were less likely to develop a decline in their thinking and memory skills.
A Mediterranean diet is rich in olive oil, fruits and vegetable, beans, nuts, and fish, while it’s low in foods containing saturated fats, like meat and dairy foods.
"Diet is an important modifiable activity that could help in preserving cognitive functioning in late life."
- Dr. Georgios Tsivgoulis, the study's lead author
A growing body of research has found that eating a Mediterranean diet reduces risk of heart disease, cancer, mortality and lowers the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. This type of diet is high in antioxidants and unsaturated fatty acids like omega-3, which may have a positive effect on the heart and the brain.
"Since there are no definitive treatments for most dementing illnesses, modifiable activities, such as diet, that may delay the onset of symptoms of dementia are very important," said the study’s lead author Dr. Georgios Tsivgoulis, of the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the University of Athens, Greece.
The study, published in the journal Neurology, collected dietary information from 17,478 African-Americans and Caucasians with an average age of 64. Participants were also given tests that measured memory and thinking abilities over an average period of four years. Seven percent of the participants developed impairments in their thinking and memory skills during the length of the study.
But healthy individuals whose diet more closely match the Mediterranean diet had a 19 percent reduced risk of cognitive decline. This eating style, however, did not reduce mental decline in those with diabetes. The authors believe this may be partly because diabetes causes damage to the brain, through high insulin levels or hypoglycemia episodes, which a diet may not be able to overcome.
There is no evidence yet that someone with cognitive decline would see a reversal of symptoms by switching to a Mediterranean diet, but studies show that eating like the Greeks appears to protect the brain and cognition from further decline.
"Diet is an important modifiable activity that could help in preserving cognitive functioning in late life," Tsivgoulis said. "However, it is only one of several important lifestyle activities that might play a role in late-life mental functioning. Exercise, avoiding obesity, not smoking cigarettes and taking medications for conditions like diabetes and hypertension are also important."
For more information on following a Mediterranean diet, go to Oldways.com, which promotes more healthful traditional diets.
Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist whose work appears in the New York Times, among other national magazines and websites. She blogs about the Affordable Care Act for the WellBeeFile. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.