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Adherence to the Mediterranean diet (MeDi) may prevent brain atrophy in old age, new research suggests.

A large cross-sectional study by investigators at Columbia University in New York linked adherence to the MeDI to larger brain volume in an elderly population, suggesting this type of diet has the potential to prevent brain atrophy and, by extension, preserve cognition in the elderly.

"Our study suggests that adhering to MeDi may prevent cognitive decline or AD [Alzheimer's disease] by maintaining the brain structure or delaying aging-related atrophy," said study investigator Yian Gu, PhD.

Dr Gu presented the findings here at the American Academy of Neurology (AAN) 67th Annual Meeting.

Driven by Higher Fish Intake

....Participants who adhered more to a MeDI had larger brain volumes both in gray matter and white matter, said Dr Gu. She also noted that each additional higher MeDi adherence and total brain volume is equivalent to more than 1 year of aging (β for age = 2.5; P < .001).

Dr Gu noted that most of the association was driven by higher intake of fish and lower intake of meat. Potential mechanisms, she said, include anti-inflammatory and/or antioxidative effects, as well as potential slowing of the accumulation of β-amyloid or tau.

Novel Finding

Commenting on the study for Medscape Medical News, David Knopman, MD, professor of neurology at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine in Rochester, Minnesota, said the finding that diet may influence brain volume is novel and adds a "dimension of biology" to the hypothesis that diet and brain health are linked.

"I think this is a useful and somewhat reassuring observation that diet may influence brain health," said Dr Knopman. However, he cautioned, it doesn't establish whether diet alone is responsible for this effect or whether adherence to a MeDi is a marker of general good health practices.

"The fact is that science in general has been terribly burned by conflicting claims about diet. Almost all of the studies have been observational and the possibility of causal mechanisms being something else that the diet is a proxy for is a really big issue."

However, he added, the literature about the benefits of the MeDi seem to be more than just a random observation. However, "the big question remains is it something in the diet or is the diet a proxy for something else."

Dr Knopman also advised caution in interpreting the clinical implications of the study's findings.

"There is the natural tendency by the media, but also by scientists and the lay public, to assume that the relationships translate to immediate therapeutic benefit. Any therapeutic benefit likely reflects lifelong exposure [to the MeDi] so the idea of changing one's diet at age 75 and thinking it would make much of a difference is absurd."


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