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May 26, 2015

Mediterranean Diet Improves Memory and Brain Function

A diet rich in olive oil and nuts may improve brain function and reduce risk for dementia.

The Mediterranean diet, common in Southern Italy, Greece and Spain, has gained much attention in the last few years for its wide array of potential health benefits. Many studies have found that the Mediterranean diet improves heart health, reduces risk of stroke and may help you live longer. New findings published in JAMA Internal Medicine also suggest that the Mediterranean diet may improve brain function and prevent cognitive decline—a major risk factor for dementia.

Part of the PREDIMED trial (Prevención con Dieta Mediterránea), this study followed healthy individuals from Barcelona, Spain, to assess the impact of the Mediterranean diet on brain function. A total of 447 older adults participated in the study and were randomly assigned to adhere to a Mediterranean diet or to a traditional low-fat diet. The Mediterranean diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts, and includes fish and poultry. The Mediterranean diet also limits the consumption of red meats and includes healthy fats, like those contained in olive oil.

Researchers followed participants for four years, using cognitive tests to assess subjects’ brain function over the course of the study. They measured factors like memory, intelligence, language and attention. After analysis, researchers found that adults on the Mediterranean diet had better overall brain function than those on the low-fat diet.

Findings suggest that a Mediterranean diet helps slow the mental decline that often occurs with age. Loss of memory and language skills can be a warning sign of dementia, and it’s possible that simply eating nutrient-rich foods may prevent declines in brain function.

Results of the PREDIMED trial add to a growing body of evidence that the Mediterranean diet has a number of health benefits. Adopting the Mediterranean diet or components of the diet, such as fish, olive oil and nuts, may go a long way in improving overall health.

Questions for You to Consider

  • What is the Mediterranean diet?
  • The Mediterranean diet is a way of eating rather than a formal diet plan. It features foods eaten in Greece, Spain, southern Italy and France, and other countries that border the Mediterranean Sea.

    The Mediterranean diet emphasizes eating foods like fish, fruits, vegetables, beans, high-fiber breads and whole grains, and olive oil. Meat, cheese, and sweets are very limited. The recommended foods are rich with monounsaturated fats, fiber, and omega-3 fatty acids.

    The Mediterranean diet is like other heart-healthy diets in that it recommends eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, and high-fiber grains. But in the Mediterranean diet, an average of 35-to-40% of calories can come from fat. Most other heart-healthy guidelines recommend getting less than 35% of your calories from fat. The fats allowed in the Mediterranean diet are mainly from unsaturated oils, such as fish oils, olive oil, and certain nut or seed oils (such as canola, soybean, or flaxseed oil). These types of oils may have a protective effect on the heart.  For more information, read this overview of the Mediterranean diet.
  • What is a heart-healthy diet?

  • A heart-healthy diet is full of fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains and includes low-fat dairy, fish and nuts as part of a balanced diet. It’s important to limit intake of added sugars, salt (sodium) and bad fats (saturated and trans fats).

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