Brain Boost: Mediterranean Diet May Fend Off Memory Loss
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
When it comes to eating well and heart health, a lot of research points to the benefits of a Mediterranean-style diet. And another study now adds to that evidence, showing this pattern of eating may give our brains a boost, too. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports what we put on our plate may help stave off cognitive decline.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: If you happen to be one of the millions of people pushing through middle-age with a few bad eating habits and a less-than-ideal dress size or pant size, you might be encouraged by this new study. About a decade ago, researchers in Spain recruited men and women in their 50s, 60s and 70s, all of whom were overweight and had other risk factors for heart disease, too, such as high blood pressure. And they asked these people to go on a diet.
Some were put on a Mediterranean-style diet, rich in vegetables, fish, whole grains, as well as extra servings of either olive oil or nuts. Another group was put on a lower fat diet. And what the researchers found is that the people who followed the oil and nut-rich Mediterranean diet cut their risk of heart attacks and strokes by about 30 percent. Dariush Mozaffarian, who's dean of the nutrition school at Tufts University, says the finding was striking.
DARIUSH MOZAFFARIAN: That finding rocked the science world by showing in a trial that a diet rich in healthy fats can reduce heart attacks and strokes.
AUBREY: That was published two years ago, and now, this week, researchers tell us what they've learned about what's happening in the brains of the people in this Mediterranean diet study. It turns out, early in the study they gave many of the men and women a bunch of memory and cognition tests.
MURALI DORAISWAMY: These were cognitively normal people, so essentially, these people were all performing normally.
AUBREY: That's Murali Doraiswamy, a brain health scientist at Duke University. He was not involved in the study, but he agreed to look at the results with us. He explains when the researchers did another round of memory tests four years later, they found that the people following the Mediterranean diet, supplemented with all the good fats and olive oil and nuts, showed no memory loss and were more mentally sharp compared to people following the lower-fat diet. Doraiswamy says the results are encouraging.
DORAISWAMY: I think the brain is changing throughout life, and I think what this study shows is that even in your 60s, diet can influence your brain in a beneficial way.
AUBREY: Doraiswamy says there are still lots of questions about how exactly healthy fats and the Mediterranean pattern of eating might confer such benefits. The leading theory is that the diet helps reduce inflammation and oxidative stress. Harvard University's JoAnn Manson says the diet is likely acting in many different ways. And she says the big picture here is that the study adds to the evidence that eating a heart-healthy diet also protects our brains.
JOANN MANSON: There's been increasing evidence that what's good for the heart is also good for the brain. The two are strongly interconnected.
AUBREY: And so, Manson says, the new findings are encouraging. They show, changing your diet, even later in life, can be beneficial. Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.