A recent study by the University of Edinburgh found that older people who followed a Mediterranean diet retained more brain volume over a three-year period than those who did not follow the diet as closely.
But contrary to earlier studies, eating more fish and less meat was not related to changes in the brain.
The Mediterranean diet includes large amounts of fruits, vegetables, olive oil, beans and cereal grains such as wheat and rice, moderate amounts of fish, dairy and wine, and limited red meat and poultry.
As people age, the brain shrinks, and people lose brain cells which can affect learning and memory.
In the study, researchers gathered information on the eating habits of 967 Scottish people around age 70 who did not have dementia.
Of those people, 562 had an MRI brain scan around age 73 to measure overall brain volume, gray matter volume and thickness of the cortex, which is the outer layer of the brain.
From that group, 401 people then returned for a second MRI at age 76. These measurements were compared to how closely participants followed the Mediterranean diet.
The participants varied in how closely their dietary habits followed the Mediterranean diet principles.
The team found people who didn’t follow as closely to the Mediterranean diet were more likely to have a higher loss of total brain volume over the three years than people who followed the diet more closely.
The difference in diet explained 0.5% of the variation in total brain volume, an effect that was half the size of that due to normal aging.
The results were the same when the researchers adjusted for other factors that could affect brain volumes, such as age, education, and having diabetes or high blood pressure.
There was no link between grey matter volume or cortical thickness and the Mediterranean diet.
The researchers also found that fish and meat intake were not related to brain changes, which is contrary to earlier studies.
They say 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.
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The study was published in Neurology and conducted by Michelle Luciano et al.
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