The Mediterranean diet has long been linked with healthy aging and cognition. But with new headlines giving mixed signals about this relationship, one can wonder what to believe.
First, we have to understand what the new research tells us. In a study published this month following 28,025 adults in Sweden for two decades, researchers surprisingly found no relationship between what people ate and their likelihood of developing dementia.
In a statement, Dr. Isabelle Glans, lead author of the new study, clarifies that this “study does not rule out a possible association between diet and dementia.” In fact, a large body of existing evidence suggests that healthy eating, especially a Mediterranean diet, may have a protective relationship when it comes to dementia prevention and progression.
In a study of 16,160 middle-aged European adults followed for over 20 years, those most closely following the Mediterranean diet were 20% less likely to develop dementia. Research of hundreds of German adults links a Mediterranean diet with signiﬁcantly better memory and larger gray matter volume in the area of the brain related to memory, along with other benefits, while research on hundreds of British adults links a Mediterranean diet with better cognitive function, including better memory, visuospatial ability, and verbal ability. Here in the U.S., NIH-funded research of 7,756 American adults found a significant link between the Mediterranean diet and lower risk of cognitive impairment.
New evidence should be added to what was known before, not substituted for it sequentially. As we run different studies in different populations, we may get different results. However, it is important to look at the overall body of evidence. Focusing on prevailing patterns and best practices puts us in the best position to reduce our risk for dementia and disease.
The benefits of a Mediterranean diet extend far beyond the connection with brain health. While no diet can eliminate our risk of developing dementia or other chronic diseases, what we eat does matter. Nutrient-dense foods like those found in a Mediterranean diet provide essential vitamins and minerals to our brains and bodies, and can help support a healthy gut microbiome as well. As researchers work to more clearly understand the relationship between diet and dementia, people who enjoy a Mediterranean diet can still benefit from a reduced risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, and other chronic diseases.
Diet is also just one tool in our lifestyle toolbox. In a study of 2,765 adults in Chicago, researchers monitored these 5 healthy lifestyle factors: 1) not smoking, 2) at least 150 minutes per week of exercise, 3) low to moderate alcohol consumption, 4) following a Mediterranean-inspired healthy diet, and 5) participating in late-life “cognitive activities” like reading, crafting, playing games, and socializing. Compared with adults following 0 or 1 healthy lifestyle factor, the risk of Alzheimer’s dementia was 37% lower in those following 2 or 3 healthy lifestyle factors, and 60% lower in those following 4 or 5 healthy lifestyle factors.
Anyone reading health articles today has likely experienced nutritional whiplash from conflicting headlines — one day something is good for you, the next day it seemingly isn’t. The biggest surprises to people outside of the research community is that nutrition experts with widely varying approaches agree on more than we might think.
At a groundbreaking conference in Boston, nutrition nonprofit Oldways brought together experts from diverse nutritional perspectives and philosophies (from vegan to Paleo, and from low-fat to Mediterranean) to come to consensus on the key elements of a healthy diet. These experts emphasized that “fundamentals and current understanding do NOT change every time a new study makes headlines.” In other words, it is important to look at the bigger picture, and see how new studies fit into the existing body of scientific evidence.
Don’t let uncertainty stop you from taking scientifically-backed steps to improve your health. By embracing a diet filled with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, fish, nuts, and heart-healthy fats, we can nourish our brains and bodies for the long run, and enjoy a delicious world of foods and flavors along the way.