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By any other name, Mediterranean diet protects the brain

April 12, 2010 |  4:48 pm

It's sounding increasingly familiar, but a new study suggests that the dietary advice at the heart of the Mediterranean diet bears repeating, in any accent that suits you: eating lots of leafy green and cruciferous vegetables, nuts, fish, poultry and fruits (including tomatoes) is the best way to preserve the health of mind and body.

In this case, it's the brain that appears to benefit from a diet that uses saturated dairy fats and red meats sparingly, relying more heavily on lean protein, plant-based foods and the kind of polyunsaturated fats you find in olive and canola oils. An article released early, but slated for publication in June's issue of the Archives of Neurology, found that older adults who consumed lots of salad dressing, nuts, chicken and fish, fruits and vegetables were less than half as likely as those whose diets were heaviest in meat and saturated fat to develop Azheimer's disease.

Those components are indeed the central pillars of the Mediterranean diet, which has been linked to improved cardiovascular health and lower cancer rates. And the same Columbia University researchers who conducted this study have found before that adherence to a Mediterranean diet appears to protect against Alzheimer's disease. But in this study, they wanted to explore whether consumption patterns that may not look Mediterranean, but which share some of that region's dietary features, might also protect against Alzheimer's.

Researchers followed a total of 2,148 cognitively health New York City residents over age 65 for about four years, assessing each subject for cognitive deficits at least three times. At the same time, the researchers broke down their dietary reports to gauge their intake of seven nutrients: saturated fatty acids; monounsaturated fatty acids; Omega-3 and Omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids; vitamin E, vitamin B12 and folate.

Of the one-third (749) of subjects whose diets ranked highest in saturated fats and B12 (nutrients richly represented in red meat and organ meats, butter and high-fat dairy products) and lowest in monunsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, vitamin E and folate, 117 subjects (16%) developed Alzheimer's disease during the four year study.

Of the 682 subjects whose diets ranked in the top third of the group in intake of vitamin E, folate and poly- and monounsaturated fats (nutrients found in poultry, fish, vegetables and most nuts and vegetable oils), just 50 subjects (or 7%) developed Alzheimer's disease. (Of the 717 in the middle, 86 subjects--or 12% developed the degenerative disease of memory.)

Just remember, you don't actually have to live on the shores of the Mediterranean--or to eat and drink like the coastal Spaniards, southern French, Italians or Greeks do--to live a long and memorable life.

-- Melissa Healy

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