The Mediterranean diet may be as good for your head as it is for your heart.
Bring on the greek salad!
Bring on the greek salad! (iStockphoto.com)
Researchers at Columbia University found that the number of strokes was lower in a group of older New Yorkers when they ate the diet, which is high in fish, grains, nuts, fruits and vegetables. It even includes a glass of red wine.
What it doesn't have much of is red meat, dairy products, poultry and processed foods.
Researchers collected information about the diets of more than 700 people over 65. After six years, the volunteers got a brain scan using an MRI. The scan revealed at least one area of brain damage in 238 of these people, signaling a small stroke. Some people had more extensive damage, but none of the strokes were considered massive or debilitating.
Still, the MRI showed enough brain damage to subtly interfere with a person's quick thinking, movement and balance, according to Columbia neurologist Nikolaos Scarmeas. And small strokes put a person at risk for more and bigger strokes.
Scarmeas says the people who ate diets which most closely resembled the Mediterranean diet were 36 percent less likely to experience small strokes. The results will be presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology in April.
How come? Scarmeas doesn't know for sure, but speculates that the diet somehow protects blood vessels by reducing plaque and clotting.
Which would make sense, because cardiologists have long known that the Mediterranean diet is heart-healthy. Studies have shown it lowers bad cholesterol and triglycerides while increasing good cholesterol and the body's ability to process sugar. "If you put all those things together, those are all favorable," says cardiologist Elizabeth Klodas of the American College of Cardiology.
Nobody's certain what part of the diet is most useful. Klodas says it could be the high fiber in the fruits and vegetables.
Whatever the source, people who stick to the Mediterranean diet tend to have healthy weights. And the diet-brain connection is made stronger by another study Scarmeas did, showing that people who ate the diet are 40 percent less likely to have Alzheimer's disease.
Scarmeas cautions, though, that before firm conclusions can be drawn, more research is needed. The accuracy of studies like this one, which relied on people's recollection of what they ate, suffer from the inability of people to remember well, even under the best of circumstances.