You know that the Mediterranean diet is good for your heart. Now, research confirms that it’s also good for your brain. In a new review of previous studies, following the plant-heavy meal plan was associated with better memory and less cognitive decline. The benefits weren’t just exclusive to seniors, either; in the two included studies that looked at young adults, cognitive scores improved in people 19 to 40, as well.
The review, in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition, included 18 papers published between 2000 and 2015 that looked at the effect of the Mediterranean diet on cognitive processes over time. All together, the findings were impressive: Thirteen of the studies found some association between adherence to the Mediterranean diet and brain benefits, including slower rates of decline and improvement in memory and recall.
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The most surprising result, says lead study author Roy Hardman, is that these positive effects were seen in people from all around the world. (The studies took place in the United States, France, Spain, Sweden, and Australia.)
“Regardless of being located outside of what is considered the Mediterranean region, the positive cognitive effects of a higher adherence to a MedDiet were similar in all evaluated papers," Hardman, a PhD candidate at the Swinburne University of Technology in Australia, said in a press release.
The diet’s health benefits are likely due to a combination of several factors, says Hardman. For example, it has been shown to reduce inflammation, improve vitamin and mineral imbalances, lower cholesterol, and boost metabolism. Some research suggests it may also be good for your gut, reduce fracture risk in old age, and even slow aging on a cellular level.
In other words, Hardman says, “the MedDiet offers the opportunity to change some of the modifiable risk factors” for cognitive decline, as well as other chronic diseases.
The study authors characterize the Mediterranean diet’s key components as “abundant consumption of plant foods, such as leafy greens, fresh fruit and vegetables, cereals, beans, seeds, nuts, and legumes.” The diet also includes small amounts of dairy and minimal red meat, and uses olive oil as its major source of fat.
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Of course, the idea that a plant-based, minimal-meat meal plan is good for the mind is not new, says Keith Fargo, PhD, director of scientific programs and outreach at the Alzheimer's Association. In fact, the Alzheimer’s Association has recommended the Mediterranean diet (along with another whole foods-based eating plan, the DASH Diet) for years.
"In recent years, there has been growing scientific support for the concept that lifestyle factors that are good for your heart are also good for your brain,” Fargo says. “Eating right and regular physical activity appear to be particularly important."
Maintaining an overall healthy diet is probably more important than the impact of a few specific vitamins or foods, Fargo adds. And a growing body of research—including Hardman’s new study—support the idea that a Mediterranean diet is one way to do that.
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While it’s important to recognize that diet is frequently associated with other factors that may impact cognition in aging, Fargo says—such as smoking, education levels, and socioeconomic status—he does believe that there is “sufficiently strong evidence to conclude that a healthy diet may reduce the risk of cognitive decline.”
Hardman is sold on the idea, as well. "I follow the diet patterns and do not eat any red meats, chicken, or pork,” he says. “I have fish two to three times per week and adhere to a Mediterranean style of eating.”