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A new study has found the Mediterranean diet to be associated with bigger brains and a slower rate of cognitive decline. Of the nine different Mediterranean dietary components assessed, eating more fish and less meat was found to have the greatest protective effect of all. 

In the study, researchers from Columbia University in New York scanned the brains of 674 elderly adults without dementia and with a mean age of 80 years. Dietary information was collected to assess whether participants diets during the past year included any of the following characteristic Mediterranean dietary components:

Lots of vegetables, legumes, fruit and nuts, cereals, including healthy monounsaturated fats such as olive oil and avoiding saturated fats, moderate alcohol intake and low intake of meat and dairy products. 

Researchers used MRI scans to assess total brain volume, total gray matter volume, total white matter volume, mean cortical thickness and regional volume.

Results showed that people who included at least five of the characteristic components of a Mediterranean diet had a brain size that was 13.11 ml larger on average than those who didn’t include at least five of the dietary components. Eating more fish and less meat was found to have the greatest protective effect. The researchers commented that this difference in brain volume is equivalent to five years of shrinkage through ageing.

Lead researcher Yian Gu commented on the results,

“When you consider that eating at least five of the recommended Mediterranean diet components has an association comparable to five years of age, that is substantial. Eating at least 3 to 5 ounces of fish weekly, or eating no more than 3.5 ounces of meat daily, may provide considerable protection against loss of brain cells equal to about three to four years of ageing.”

“These results are exciting, as they raise the possibility that people may potentially prevent brain shrining and the effects of ageing on the brain simply by following a healthy diet.”

Gu Y, Brickman A M et al. Mediterranean diet and brain structure in a multiethnic elderly cohort.  Published online before print October 21, 2015, doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1212/WNL. 00000000000002121 Neurology 10.1212/WNL.0000000000002121        

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