Your brain weighs about three pounds and is made up of about 100 billion neurons. These neurons, or nerve cells, constantly carry signals through your nervous system to other parts of your body to keep you in homeostasis and help you interact with the world around you.
Unfortunately, the brain changes with age, and key portions of the brain involved with learning and memory shrink in size. Some of these changes can affect our thinking and memory abilities.
Brain aging is inevitable, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to slow it down. You may have met people in the eighth or ninth decade of life who are quick-witted and still have a great memory. Is it good genes or lifestyle?
Lifestyle vs. Genetics
Genetics is a factor, but lifestyle plays a key role in how quickly our brains age. Exercise, social interaction, and avoiding exposure to toxins, like cigarette smoke and air pollution, help slow brain aging, but what about what you eat?
Diet is fundamental to health and well-being, so you would expect it to play a role in brain aging too. You might also expect that avoiding nutrient deficiency and toxins, like smoking, and foods that increase inflammation, would benefit your brain, and there’s evidence that it does.
The Mediterranean Diet is a Brain-Healthy Eating Plan
One diet that shows promise for slowing brain aging is the Mediterranean diet. A study published in the Archives of Neurology adds to a growing list of health benefits associated with following a Mediterranean diet, including a reduction in cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, and obesity.
What’s not to love about the Mediterranean diet? It’s both delicious and easy to follow, emphasizing healthy fats such as olive and canola oil, along with low glycemic grains, nuts, seeds, and fibers. The emphasis is on plant-based foods with modest quantities of unprocessed, non-red meat protein.
Mediterranean meals focus on fruits and vegetables, while encouraging a reduction in red meat, saturated fat, and dairy product consumption. The protein of choice is fish, a source of long-chained omega-3s with anti-inflammatory activity. The Mediterranean diet offers a wealth of options for people with diverse tastes.
How does the Mediterranean diet help brain health? In the study, a Mediterranean diet appeared to reduce forgetfulness and help sharpen mental focus and clarity. Simply put, people’s minds were nimbler and their memories clearer when they ate a Mediterranean diet.
Can the Mediterranean Diet Slow the Progression of Alzheimer’s Disease?
The benefits were most dramatic in individuals who adhered most closely to the diet, but the benefit was noted even in those who were not as compliant. Even in individuals with some degree of cognitive impairment and brain dysfunction already, those who closely followed the Mediterranean diet had a 48 percent reduction in progression to Alzheimer’s Disease, suggesting that brain function appeared to stabilize while on the Mediterranean diet program.
A study published in the journal Neurology even found that older people who followed a Mediterranean diet experienced less brain atrophy, and it was the equivalent of 5 years of aging.
Why the Mediterranean Diet is Brain Healthy
Researchers have different theories about how the Mediterranean diet supports brain health. One theory is that the abundance of nuts, non-starchy vegetables, fruits, and whole grains that make up the Mediterranean diet are responsible. One driving force behind brain aging is chronic, low-grade inflammation. Eating a diet rich in antioxidants that fight inflammation and avoiding ultra-processed fare is a recipe for calming the tissue damage that goes along with inflammation.
To Protect Your Brain, Eat for Heart Health
The Mediterranean diet is a heart-healthy eating plan. Studies show it has beneficial effects on blood pressure and blood lipids. Why is this important? The blood vessels that carry blood to your heart also feed your brain. Anything you can do to keep those blood vessels healthy by lowering LDL cholesterol and controlling blood pressure slows brain aging.
There’s much focus on Alzheimer’s disease, but the second most common form of dementia is atherosclerotic disease affecting the arteries that carry life-giving blood to your brain. The heart health benefits of the Mediterranean diet extend to the brain. Studies even show a link between closely following a Mediterranean diet and a slower rate of cognitive decline and brain aging.
Regardless of the mechanism of action, the prevention of cognitive decline and Alzheimer-related dementia is just another reason to embrace the Mediterranean diet as the diet of choice for promoting good health and nutrition. It’s a healthy diet that can be enjoyed by almost anyone.
How to Follow a Mediterranean Diet
Following a Mediterranean diet needn’t be a challenge as it’s built around a diverse array of foods, mostly plant-based, but also moderate quantities of seafood. The main goal of the Mediterranean diet is to eat like the people who live along the coasts of Italy, Spain, and Greece. To do this, you’ll need to think out of the package and choose more plant-based foods and fish as a source of protein.
Another step to following a Mediterranean diet is to start cooking at home. If you are making your own meals, you have total control over what ingredients you’re using. Invest in a Mediterranean cookbook or browse sites like Pinterest online and discover the wealth of tasty and nutritious foods you can enjoy Mediterranean style.
The Mediterranean diet isn’t only about eating flavorful, healthful food. It’s also about eating mindfully, and when you eat with others, enjoying the company of family and friends while you eat. That’s something you see less of in modern society. Slow down and enjoy more foods in their whole, unaltered state.
The Bottom Line
A Mediterranean eating style holds promise for healthy aging, including healthy brain aging. It’s also a delicious approach to supply your body with the nutrients your body and brain need to stay fit and healthy.
- “Mediterranean Diet Improves Cognition, Memory, and Brain Volume”
- By KC Wright, MS, RDN
- Today’s Dietitian. Vol. 20, No. 6, P. 40, June 2018.
- Gu Y, Brickman AM, Stern Y, Habeck CG, Razlighi QR, Luchsinger JA, Manly JJ, Schupf N, Mayeux R, Scarmeas N. Mediterranean diet and brain structure in a multiethnic elderly cohort. Neurology. 2015 Nov 17;85(20):1744-51. doi: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000002121. Epub 2015 Oct 21. PMID: 26491085; PMCID: PMC4653103.