NEW YORK – A recent study titled Mediterranean Diet, Alzheimer Disease Biomarkers and Brain Atrophy in Old Age, published in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, found that the Mediterranean diet may help prevent memory loss and dementia “by interfering with the buildup of two proteins, amyloid and tau, into the plaques and tangles that are hallmarks of Alzheimer's disease,” CNN reported on May 5.
“The mountain of evidence continues to build that you are what you eat when it comes to brain health,” Dr. Richard Isaacson, who directs the Alzheimer's Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York-Presbyterian Hospital, told CNN, adding that “in this important study, researchers showed that it's possible to not only improve cognitive function — most specifically memory — but also reduce risk for Alzheimer's disease pathology.”
Dr. Isaacson was not involved in the study, but added that “for every point of higher compliance with the diet, people had one extra year less of brain aging. That is striking," CNN reported. “Most people are unaware that it's possible to take control of your brain health, yet this study shows us just that.”
The Mediterranean diet, which of course includes the Greek diet, is mostly plant-based and includes fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, seeds, a moderate amount of nuts and extra-virgin olive oil. “Meat can make a rare appearance, but usually only to flavor a dish,” CNN reported, noting that “instead, meals may include eggs, dairy and poultry, but in much smaller portions than in the traditional Western diet. However, fish, which are full of brain-boosting Omega-3's, are a staple.”
The study “examined 343 people at high risk of developing Alzheimer's and compared them to 169 cognitively normal subjects,” CNN reported, adding that “first, researchers tested each person's cognitive skills, including language, memory and executive function, and used brain scans to measure brain volume. Spinal fluid from 226 participants was also tested for amyloid and tau protein biomarkers.”
“Then people were asked how well they were following the Mediterranean diet,” CNN reported, noting that “after adjusting for factors like age, sex and education, the study found that people who did not follow the diet closely had more signs of amyloid and tau buildup in their spinal fluid than those who did adhere to the diet.”
“In addition, for each point a person lost on failing to follow the Mediterranean diet, brain scans revealed one additional year of brain aging in areas associated Alzheimer's, such as the hippocampus,” CNN reported.
"These results add to the body of evidence that show what you eat may influence your memory skills later on," said study author Tommaso Ballarini, a postdoctoral fellow at the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases in Bonn, Germany, in a statement, CNN reported.
Isaacson, who is also a trustee of the McKnight Brain Research Foundation, told CNN that “one unanswered question remains: Why exactly does the Mediterranean diet protect against Alzheimer's?”
Though further study is needed, “a combination of factors are working ‘synergistically together,’” Isaacson told CNN, "such as reducing inflammation, increasing protective antioxidants, and supplying the brain with brain-healthy fats from fish high in omega-3s — like wild salmon — as well as monounsaturated fats from extra-virgin olive oil.”
For those looking to start eating the healthy Mediterranean diet, “experts say the easiest way to start is to replace one thing at a time,” CNN reported, adding “for example, replace refined grains with whole grains by choosing whole wheat bread and pasta and swapping white rice with brown or wild rice.”
Further suggestions included cooking “one meal each week based on beans, whole grains and vegetables, using herbs and spices to add punch,” CNN reported, noting “no meat allowed. When one night a week is a breeze, add two, and build your nonmeat meals from there.”
“On the Mediterranean diet, cheese and yogurt show up daily to weekly, in moderate portions; chicken and eggs are OK on occasion, but the use of other meats and sweets is very limited,” CNN reported, adding that “when you eat meat, have small amounts. For a main course, that means no more than 3 ounces of chicken or lean meat. Better yet: Use small pieces of chicken or slices of lean meat to flavor a veggie-based meal, such as a stir-fry.”
“Fish is king in the Mediterranean diet, and is eaten at least twice a week,” CNN reported, adding that the diet “also help with healthy weight loss, while reducing the risk for diabetes, depression, high cholesterol, heart disease, stroke and some cancers.”