Mediterranean diet with olive oil, nuts linked to healthier brain

Mon May 11, 2015 1:00pm EDT
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By Lisa Rapaport

(Reuters Health) - A Mediterranean diet with extra nuts and olive oil might help improve memory in older adults, a Spanish study suggests, though the results aren't definitive and more research is needed.

"This small study found that a Mediterranean diet, which is low in animal foods like meat and butter, and high in vegetables, legumes and whole grains, when supplemented with olive oil or nuts is associated with improved cognitive function," Samantha Heller, a nutritionist at New York University's Center for Musculoskeletal Care and Sports Performance who wasn't involved in the study, said by email.

While previous research has linked a Mediterranean diet to a reduced risk of heart disease and some cancers, as well as lower odds of developing Alzheimer's disease, scientists haven't conclusively proven that the diet itself is responsible, rather than other lifestyle choices made by people who eat this way.

In the current study, Dr. Emilo Ros of the lipid clinic, endocrinology and nutrition service at Hospital Clinic, Barcelona, and colleagues set out to establish a stronger link between the Mediterranean diet and better cognitive function.

They randomly assigned 447 older adults at risk for cardiovascular disease to follow one of three diets: a Mediterranean diet supplemented with one liter of extra virgin olive oil a week, a Mediterranean diet supplemented with 30 grams of nuts a day, or a low-fat diet.

At the start of the study, participants were around 67 years old and typically overweight, but not obese. Many of them had high blood pressure or high cholesterol.

All the subjects had cognitive function tests at the start of the study, but only 334 of them, or about 75 percent, completed a second round of brain evaluations at the end of the trial (after around four years of follow-up) to assess the impact of the diets. Dropouts were equally distributed among the three diet groups, and had slightly worse cognitive function at the start of the study than the participants who stuck with the experiment.

Based on the brain function tests done before and after the study, the group eating low-fat foods had a significant decrease in memory and cognitive function.   Continued...

Food is seen on a table at a restaurant at the port of El Masnou, near Barcelona May 16, 2008.  REUTERS/Albert Gea