12 January - 20 June 2016

Adherence to a Mediterranean diet linked to increased brain volume in older people

A team of scientists at the University of Edinburgh are reporting in the journal Neurology that older people who consume a Mediterranean diet retain more brain volume over a three-year period compared to those who don’t.

A team of scientists at the University of Edinburgh are reporting in the journal Neurology that older people who consume a Mediterranean diet retain more brain volume over a three-year period compared to those who don’t. 

The authors of this current study Luciano et al., define a Mediterranean diet as consisting of a high consumption of fruit, vegetables, legumes and cereals, olive oil as a primary sources of fat and moderate consumption of fish, low to moderate intake of dairy products and wine and low intake of red meat and poultry. Previous studies have reported that increased adherence to this diet lowers inflammation, improves cognitive function and reduces risk of Parkinson disease, Alzheimer’s disease and mortality from cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Luciano et al. examined dietary habits (using data from food frequency questionnaires) of 967 dementia free Scottish people, aged around 70 years, enrolled in The Lothian Birth Cohort.    At around 73 years of age, 562 people had an MRI scan to measure overall brain volume, grey matter volume and thickness of the cortex (the outer layer of the brain).  Three years later, when the participants were aged around 76 years old, 401 of the group underwent a second structural brain scan.  Cognitive assessment was measured at all three ages (70, 73 and 76).  All measurements were compared to how closely the participants followed the Mediterranean diet.

After adjusting for confounding factors, such as education, history of diabetes and higher blood pressure which the authors note can affect brain volume as well, Luciano at al found that lower adherence to the Mediterranean diet was “associated with a greater 3 year reduction in total brain volume.” The authors report that the difference in diet explained the 0.5% of the variation in total brain volume, an effect that was half the size of that due to normal aging in this sample.  There was no relationship found between grey matter volume or cortical thickness and the Mediterranean diet.

Unlike previous studies, how much fish and meat the participants consumed did not influence the changes in total brain volume or total grey matter volume.  The authors state that “It’s possible that other components of the Mediterranean diet are responsible for this relationship or that it’s due to all of the components in combination.”  

The study states in conclusion "In our study, eating habits were measured before brain volume was measured, which suggests that the diet may be able to provide long-term protection to the brain. Still, larger studies are needed to confirm these results."

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