Five standards of the Mediterranean diet, five fewer years of brain shrinkage. According to a promising new study published in the journal Neurology, it might be that easy to make a substantial difference in your cognitive health.
How easy, exactly? Here’s how the study worked: Researchers had 674 older men and women (with an average age of 80) answer questionnaires about their general diet over the previous year. Roughly seven months later, they were also asked to take part in brain scans to measure each participant’s brain volume.
The men and women were divided into two groups, based on how closely they followed the Mediterranean diet. The first group held true to the Med diet’s principles in at least five key food guidelines, either consuming more of the regimen’s classic healthy foods or eating fewer unhealthy foods. The second group adhered to the plan’s principles in just four or fewer components. There were nine principles tracked in total, each assigned a score of one:
- cereals (unrefined, whole grains)
- fish and monounsaturated fats (olive oil, avocado, etc.)
- saturated fats
- dairy products
- meat and poultry
- alcohol (mild to moderate intake)
Those in the group who followed the Mediterranean diet more closely had higher total brain volumes than those who followed less closely, equating to roughly 5.0 milliliters higher gray matter volumes and 6.41 milliliters higher white matter. Gray matter is essential in key brain functions like muscle control and sensory sharpness, while white matter is involved in nerve signaling.
The gap in brain-matter volume between those who adhered strongly to the Med Diet and those who didn’t was small on paper — but mighty when you actually break out the numbers, according to study author Yian Gu, PhD, an assistant professor of neuropsychology at Columbia University and a member of the American Academy of Neurology.
“The magnitude of the difference in brain measures between these two groups is comparable to that between two average people with 5 years apart in age,” she tells Yahoo Health. “We also found that each one unit increase in the Mediterranean diet score was also associated with larger brain volume. This means the more you adhere to the Mediterranean diet, the more protection you will get for your brain.”
Although Gu says you can’t necessarily make specific recommendations based on a single study, especially an observational study with potential compounding factors, evidence that suggests Mediterranean-type diets offer a host of health benefits (cognitive or otherwise) is piling up by the day.
When in doubt while choosing what to eat or avoid, if it’s listed as a component of the Med Diet, you’re probably in good shape. “For example, use olive oil instead of saturated animal fat, consume more fish, nuts, vegetables, and fruits,” Gu says. “These are all key principles of Mediterranean diet.”
The Mediterranean diet has long been the gold standard for overall health and wellness. However, more specifically, recent research is beginning to suggest the regimen — and adaptations taking into account its key principles and foods, like the MIND diet — may help keep your brain stronger for longer. Whether you’re in your 80s or in your 20s, it’s never too late to start enacting prevention strategies.
Gu says her latest study is yet another puzzle piece in figuring out how to stop diseases like Alzheimer’s from developing and progressing, bolstering existing research that shows a healthy diet could be a major player in preventing cognitive decline.
“I think there is a strong message that while it is important to keep searching for effective treatments and cures for diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, it is equally, if not more, important to explore modifiable lifestyle factors, such as diet, that can help people to prevent the development of diseases,” Gu explains, adding “it’s maybe even more promising.”