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Eat olive oil and nuts for a brain boost

Teresa Tanoos's picture
Olive oil, nuts found to boost brain power

If you want to keep a clear mind, try adding a little olive oil or a handful of nuts to your diet each day. According to researchers in a report published Monday in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, people who ate such foods, which contain healthy fats, were less likely to show early signs of dementia than those who did not.

Olive oil and nuts are part of the same diet that’s also been found to reduce deaths from heart attacks and strokes. The so-called Mediterranean consists of foods like fruits, vegetables, olive oil and a little wine – all of which can lower the risk of heart attacks and strokes by 30 percent, according to a large study that’s received a lot of publicity recently.

Conducted in Spain – where people typically consume a Mediterranean diet with plenty of salad, fruit, vegetables, nuts, as well as a little fish, lean meat, cheese, olive oil and wine – the study found that not only do people eating those foods lower their risk for heart attacks and strokes, but they also benefited from a brain boost.

“Our findings support increasing evidence on the protective effects of the Mediterranean Diet on cognitive function,” Miguel Martinez-Gonzalez of the University of Navarra in Spain and colleagues reported in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry.

As a part of the study, Martinez and colleagues analyzed data on 500 volunteers from their own study center, following the volunteers for more than six and a half years after they started the Mediterranean diet.

For the main study, however, 7,400 volunteers were put on the Mediterranean diet. These volunteers were between the ages of 55 and 80 and all were at high risk of heart disease due to diabetes, a family history of the disease, high blood pressure, unhealthy cholesterol levels, smoking or because they were overweight.

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These 7,400 volunteers also received extra counseling, as well as one of three options, which were randomly assigned: 1) a weekly supply of extra-virgin olive oil; or 2) mixed nuts (walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts); or 3) just a standard diet with advice to cut fat. Randomized studies are considered more credible because volunteers don’t choose what diet they’re put on; thus, other outside factors aren’t as likely to interfere with the results.

Six years after starting the Mediterranean diet, the group of 500 volunteers took two standardized tests for dementia and confused thinking, often referred to as cognitive impairment, which usually leads to dementia.

The researchers found that 60 volunteers in the smaller group had developed mild cognitive impairment. Of those, 18 had been told to eat more olive oil, 19 had been on the diet with added mixed nuts, and 23 had been advised to eat a low-fat diet. The results showed that 35 of the 60 volunteers developed dementia – 12 of whom had the added olive oil diet, 6 of whom got nuts, and 17 of whom were put on the low-fat diet.

So how does adding olive oil or nuts to the diet protect the brain? According to the study’s researchers, there are several ways. For one, olive oil and nuts contain monounsaturated fats, which are healthier for your arteries than saturated fats like those found in butter, meat and lard. Olive oil and nuts are also high in fiber, vitamin E, and minerals. Walnuts, in particular, are also rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

Martinez says the diet may also reduce damaging inflammation, with some studies suggesting that virgin olive oil, which is cold-pressed and unrefined, could fight the beta amyloid plaques that have been found to clog the brains of those with Alzheimer's disease. "A third mechanism may be that an improvement in vascular health leads to better brain blood flow," Martinez added.

Such nutrients help protect against the oxidative damage that can cause heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s. But they should come directly from food, as numerous studies have shown taking vitamins alone won’t do the trick. However, the Mediterranean diet study shows that consuming healthy foods containing such nutrients does provide real benefits.

With another recent study predicting that the rate of Alzheimer’s disease could reach epidemic-like levels in the near future due to the aging of the Baby Boom Generation, and that the number of patients with this untreatable form of dementia will triple in the next 40 years – up to 13.8 million in 2050 – eating a Mediterranean diet may be your best bet for boosting your brain in an effort to fight cognitive deterioration.

SOURCE: Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry. Mediterranean diet improves cognition, doi:10.1136/jnnp-2012-304792, May 20, 2013