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What effect does the Mediterranean diet have on brain function and cognition?

Researchers from Australia conducted the first systematic literature review to summarize the influence of the Mediterranean diet on normal brain ageing.

The Mediterranean diet is a lifestyle way of eating based on the traditional foods of the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. This diet is based on a few basic tenants:

  • Eat lots of fresh fish, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains, and herbs
  • Choose lean sources of protein such as fish, poultry, eggs, and yogurt over red meat
  • Avoid foods that are highly processed or have added sugars
  • Consume red wine in moderation

The Mediterranean diet is considered far healthier than the traditional North American diet. Numerous studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet is associated with weight loss and a decreased risk for a plethora of health conditions such as heart disease, strokes, depression, and type 2 diabetes.

Around the globe, dementia is a major health problem. It is estimated that worldwide, one new case is diagnosed every three seconds. Currently, there is no medical treatment to prevent, delay, or modify the course of dementia. Therefore, attention has turned to examining how lifestyle and diet can influence normal brain ageing.

How can the Mediterranean Diet impact brain ageing?

A recent review of the literature published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers from Australia investigated the effects of following the Mediterranean diet on brain function and cognition. The research team searched nine medical search engines (such Medline and the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials) from inception through to July of 2017 to find randomized controlled trials on the effects of the Mediterranean diet on brain health. In addition to the comprehensive searches, the lead author reviewed the lists of eligible trials and review articles and was in contact with known experts in the field to identify additional studies.

The analyses were based on 66 cognitive tests and one brain function outcome from studies covering 1,888 participants. The key characteristics of brain function and cognition that were studied were the incidence of dementia, attention, processing speed, language, executive function, and verbal, visual, and working memory.

Although the researchers found that there was a lack of uniformity in how studies defined the Mediterranean diet and structured their interventions, the literature review did suggest that the Mediterranean diet may attenuate cognitive decline and improve cognition. No benefit of the Mediterranean diet on incident cognitive impairment or dementia was found.

Written by Debra A. Kellen, PhD

Reference: Radd-Vagenas, S., Duffy, S. L., Naismith, S. L., Brew, B. J., Flood, V. M., & Fiatarone Singh, M. A. (2018). Effect of the Mediterranean diet on cognition and brain morphology and function: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition107(3), 389-404.

Debra Kellen PhD
Debra Kellen PhD
With undergraduate degrees in Neuroscience and Education from the University of Toronto, Debra began her career as a teacher. Nine years later, when she moved to Michigan, Debra earned a Ph.D. in Education Policy from the University of Michigan. Today, Debra organizes conferences and conducts workshops to provide training and support for educators and medical professionals on effective coaching, staff recruitment and training, and creating a culture of continuous improvement. She loves to read and enjoys the challenge of translating medical research into informative, easy-to-read articles. Debra spends her free time with her family, travelling, wandering through art fairs, and canoeing on the Huron River.
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