The eating habits of people who live around the Mediterranean Sea have been studied quite a bit. You can live to be quite old with that diet, or so the general impression is. Scientists at the University of Edinburgh (Scotland) have now found that a Mediterranean diet also keeps your brain keener in later life.

The scientists subjected people who were in their late 70s to a series of memory and thinking skills tests. Participants who ate lots of vegetables and little meat were found to score better overall mentally. However, the study found no link between the Mediterranean diet and better brain health.

Bio-markers of healthy brain ageing — such as greater grey or white matter volume, or fewer white matter lesions — did not differ between those who regularly followed a Mediterranean diet and those who did not.

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Ageing of the brain

“Which suggests that a predominantly plant-based diet may have benefits for cognitive functioning as we age,” the researchers stated in a university press release.

The scientists examined the thinking skills of more than 500 people aged 79 who were not suffering from dementia. They were instructed to solve various problems and also tested for memory, thinking speed and vocabulary skills. Additionally, the test subjects had to answer questions about their eating habits over the past year. More than 350 people also underwent a brain scan to gain insight into the structure of their brains.

The team used statistical models to look for links between a person’s diet and their thinking ability and brain health in later life.

Statistically significant

The study revealed that people who adhered most closely to a Mediterranean diet had the highest cognitive function scores. Even when childhood IQ, smoking, physical activity and health factors were taken into account. The differences were small but statistically significant

“The positive relationship between a Mediterranean diet and cognitive ability cannot be attributed to a healthier brain structure, as one might expect,” the researchers said. “However, it is possible that there are other structural or functional brain correlations associated with this diet. Or associations in specific brain regions, rather than the whole brain, as was measured here.”

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Author profile picture Arnoud Cornelissen has for many years been writing about science and technology in, among others, various Dutch newspapers.