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Eating a Mediterranean diet can slow down natural brain shrinkage in older people, which is commonly linked to decreased learning and memory ability, a new study has found.
Researchers at the University of Edinburgh found that people in their 70s who adhered most closely to a diet rich in vegetables, fruit, olive oil and beans, experienced significantly less brain shrinkage than those who regularly consumed meat and dairy.
Dr Michelle Luciano, lead researcher of the study, said: “As we age, the brain shrinks and we lose brain cells, which can affect learning and memory.
“This study adds to the body of evidence that suggests the Mediterranean diet has a positive impact on brain health.”
Contrary to previous ‘snapshot’ studies investigating the relationship between diet and brain health, this new study followed participants over time.
By taking MRI scans of 401 volunteers at the age of 73 and then again at 76, researchers found that those who reported eating a Mediterranean-style diet showed evidence of less brain shrinkage compared to those who did not adopt such a diet.
Results also remained significant when researchers accounted for other factors, such as education, diabetes and high blood pressure.
Eating more fish and less meat, however, was not associated with any differences in brain size.
Dr Luciano added: “It's possible that other components of the Mediterranean diet [such as vegetables, fruits and grains] are responsible for this relationship, or that it's due to all of the components in combination.
“In our study, eating habits were measured before brain volume was, which suggests that the diet may be able to provide long-term protection to the brain.”
Natural shrinking of the brain through loss of nerve cells accelerates as people reach old age and can result in difficulty with memory and thinking.
But the charity Alzheimer’s Research UK is keen to highlight that this natural shrinkage is not the same as nerve cell loss caused by diseases like Alzheimer’s, which is much quicker and more severe.
Dr David Reynolds, chief scientific officer for the charity, said: “This study adds to previous research, highlighting the importance of this kind of well-balanced diet in maintaining a healthy brain as we age.
“While the study points to diet having a small effect on changes in brain size, it didn’t look at the effect on risk of dementia.
“We would need to see follow-up studies in order to investigate any potential protective effects against problems with memory and thinking.”