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Mediterranean Diet Trumps Low-Fat Diet in Fighting Off Dementia

Update Date: May 21, 2013 11:17 AM EDT

New research reveals more evidence why people should start switching to the Mediterranean diet.  Not only will eating like the Spanish and Italians lower the risk of heart attacks, stroke, asthma and cancer, it can also improve and preserve brainpower more effectively than low-fat diets, according to a new study.

The study published in the Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery and Psychiatry reveals that people significantly lowered their risk of developing dementia after just six years of being on the tasty diet.

Researchers said that a Mediterranean diet enjoyed by people in southern Europe is characterized by the use of virgin olive oil as the main culinary fat; high intake of fruits, nuts, vegetables and pulses; moderate to high intake of fish and seafood; low consumption of dairy products and red meat and moderate intake of red wine.

The latest findings suggest that the added extra virgin olive oil and mixed nuts in the Mediterranean diet helps preserve and improve memory, attention span and abstract thinking in older adults.

The study involved 522 men and women aged 55 to 80.  Participants were regarded as being at a high risk for cardiovascular disease, either from type 2 diabetes or a combination of factors including high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, obesity, family history and smoking.  The participants were randomly divided into three groups.  Two groups was put on a regular Mediterranean diet with either added olive oil or mixed nuts and a control group received advice to follow low-fat nutrition that is typically recommended to prevent heart attacks and strokes.

After an average of 6.5 years, participants were tested for signs of cognitive decline using a range of mental tests.  

Researchers said a total of 60 participants had developed mild cognitive impairment at the end of the study.  Of those who had developed mild cognitive impairments, 18 were on the olive oil supplemented Mediterranean diet, 19 were on the diet with added mixed nuts and 23 were on the low-fat diet.

Another 35 people developed dementia during the study, and 12 were on the olive oil diet, six were on the added nut diet and 17 were on the low fat diet.

Researchers found that participants on the Mediterranean diet also scored significantly higher on mental tests compared to those on the low-fat diet.

The findings held true even after researchers accounted for other factors like age, family history of dementia, education, exercise levels, blood vessel heath and depression.

"Our trial suggests that nutritional intervention with MedDiet supplemented with either extra-virgin olive oil or nuts is associated with improved global cognition," the authors wrote in the study. "There are mechanisms that can explain the protective effect of MedDiet on cognitive status, including antioxidative and anti-inflammatory effects and reduced vascular comorbidities."

"Future interventional research including both baseline and follow-up assessments of global and multiple domains of cognition is needed to obtain firmer evidence regarding potential benefits of MedDiet on cognition," they concluded.

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