It’s no big secret that your diet plays a big role in your health. It doesn’t matter if you’re training for a marathon or simply want a little more focus during your workday, you need to start with eating the right foods. As it turns out, it might also play a massive role in your brain health in old age too.
A new observational study published Monday in the journal BMC Medicine found that eating a traditional Mediterranean diet—one that is rich in dishes like seafood, grains, nuts, vegetables, and fruit—is linked to a reduced risk of dementia in some people. Study participants who ate more of a Mediterranean diet had a roughly 23 percent lower risk of the neurodegenerative disorder than those who ate less.
This paper echoes past research that bolstered the appeal of the Mediterranean diet and its health benefits, including one study last year that found U.S. adults could add more than 10 years to their expected lifespan if they switched to such a diet. The diet could mean that it’s a relatively easy and accessible way to modify one’s lifestyle for outsized health benefits.
“While there are no sure-fire ways to prevent dementia yet, a diet rich in fruit and vegetables, along with plenty of exercise and not smoking, all contribute to good heart health, which in turn helps to protect our brain from diseases that lead to dementia,” Susan Mitchell, the head of policy at Alzheimer’s Research U.K. who wasn’t involved in the study, said in a statement.
The study analyzed data gathered from more than 60,000 people from the U.K. Biobank (a large, long-term collection of health data from over 500,000 participants) who completed a dietary assessment. Researchers then used this information to assign each participant a Mediterranean diet score (MEDAS). After accounting for genetic risk factors for dementia, they discovered that the participants who adhered the most to a Mediterranean diet had a 23 percent lower risk of dementia than those with a lower MEDAS score.
However, there’s a few big things to keep in mind with this study. First, it only analyzed data exclusively from people with white British and Irish ancestry. That’s a pretty big blind spot in the study, and means you should take any of the findings with a grain of salt (not too much salt though because of your heart health).
“More research is needed to build on its intriguing findings, and uncover whether these reported benefits also translate to minority communities, where historically dementia has often been misunderstood and highly stigmatized, and where awareness of how people can reduce their risk is low,” Mitchell added.
It also doesn’t take into account potential lifestyle factors. For example, those who might adhere to a healthier Mediterranean diet might also be people more likely to exercise more regularly—and thus lower their overall risk of dementia.
Further, the study also fails to touch on the “intrinsic aspects of the Mediterranean diet, which include eating socially,” Duane Mellor, a senior lecturer at the Aston Medical School at Aston University who wasn’t a part of the study, said in a statement. “[The] Mediterranean way of eating is not just about food on plates. It’s about the social interactions linked to food—and people who socialize more have lower risk of dementia and other conditions.”
While a lot more research can and should be taken to look at what potential benefits this diet could offer us in preventing or lessening the risk of dementia, it might not be a bad idea to start incorporating a little bit more of the Mediterranean diet into your own day-to-day eating habits. At the very least, eating less of a Western diet—which often includes more saturated fats, added sugars, and a whole lot of sodium—will do your heart and mind some good.
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