A Delicious Diet That Protects Your Memory

Mediterranean SaladWant a diet that gives an extra boost to your brain? Try a few almonds for a midmorning snack, extra-virgin olive oil on your salad at lunch, and walnuts on your fish dinner.

Adding additional helpings of extra-virgin olive oil and nuts to the already brain-healthy Mediterranean diet can help protect your memory and thinking skills, at least according to one new Spanish study published in JAMA Internal Medicine. The research builds on previous studies finding that the Mediterranean diet — rich in whole grains, vegetables, fish and legumes such as beans or lentils — protects both hearts and minds, and strengthens the emerging theory that what you eat can help protect your brain from disease and keep your memory sharp.

For this study, researchers recruited 447 volunteers between ages 50 and 80 who were at high risk for heart disease because of several factors, including smoking, high blood pressure and obesity. Numerous studies have shown that what’s good for the heart is good for the brain, so, in theory, improving heart health should also improve brain health.

The Spanish researchers divided the subjects into three groups. One group added at least five tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil daily to a Mediterranean diet, and a second group added a handful of walnuts, hazelnuts and almonds a day to their Mediterranean diet. A third group was told to follow a low-fat diet.

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At the beginning and end of the study, researchers measured volunteers’ brain health, giving them tests for working memory, attention, verbal fluency, executive function and other tasks.

After about four years, the researchers found that the subjects who added nuts to their diets improved their memory, whereas those who used extra-virgin olive oil improved executive function — the ability to organize thoughts — and overall thinking skills. The subjects who were told to stick to the low-fat diet? Their memories were worse off than when they started. (Perhaps because they wanted to forget all the boring low-fat food.)

“Our results suggest that in an older population, a Mediterranean diet supplemented with olive oil or nuts may counteract age-related cognitive decline,” said lead author Emilio Ros, M.D., a researcher at the Hospital Clinic of Barcelona. He added that this was the first clinical trial to measure whether dietary patterns change brain health.

Some scientists aren’t quite as enthusiastic about the study. P. Murali Doraiswamy, director of the Neurocognitive Disorders Program at Duke University in Durham, N.C., said the study’s results are far from conclusive. It didn’t go on long enough to track rates of dementia, so it’s impossible tell whether those on the Mediterranean diet are protected from Alzheimer’s disease. Also, he told NPR, those in the nuts and oils groups may have behaved in other ways that helped improve their memories — smoking less or exercising more, for example.

The Spanish researchers said they suspect antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agents in the Mediterranean diet help protect the brain. In addition, extra-virgin olive oil and nuts are especially rich in compounds that seem to increase blood flow to the brain and stimulation of new brain neurons. In a previous study of the same group, the researchers found that the Mediterranean diet reduced heart disease and stroke by 30 percent; those who ate extra olive oil and nuts reduced their stroke risk even more.

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Ros said that he especially likes walnuts, which are high in omega-3 fatty acids, and recommends adding sofrito, a sauce of simmering tomatoes, olive oil and garlic, to rice and pasta dishes. “We believe this is an antioxidant cocktail,” he told the Wall Street Journal.

Along with a glass of red wine — also recommended on the Mediterranean diet — that’s one doctor’s prescription I’m happy to try at home.

More Mediterranean recipes to try:

Asparagus Wrapped in Pancetta With Citronette

Roasted Halibut With Grapefruit Fennel Salsa

Roasted Salmon Over French Lentils, Tomatoes and Fennel

Photo: iStock/lucafabbian

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