Study: Mediterranean Diet May Lower Stroke Risk

The Mediterranean diet may be healthy not only for your heart but also for your brain. Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center report patients who ate the diet — rich in fish, fruits and vegetables — suffered fewer small strokes than those who ate a more traditional Western diet.

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We know the Mediterranean diet - rich in fish, fruits and vegetables - is good for your heart, but could it also be good for your brain? Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center report that patients who ate a Mediterranean diet suffered fewer small strokes as compared to those who ate a more traditional Western diet.

NPR's Patti Neighmond reports.

PATTI NEIGHMOND: This is the first study looking at the connection between diet, dementia and the small strokes that can cause dementia.

Neurologist Niko Scarmeas analyzed the diets of 712 New Yorkers over the age of 65. Six years later, the volunteers had MRIs of their brains. Two hundred and thirty-eight of them had at least one area of brain damage, signaling a small stroke. Although these weren't massive, debilitating strokes, Scarmeas says they still can cause problems.

Dr.�NIKO SCARMEAS (Neurologist, Columbia University Medical Center): They often cause some impairment in somebody's balance, in somebody's speed of movement and in somebody's cognitive function. They could have effects on somebody's speed of thinking or reaction.

NEIGHMOND: And they put the person at risk for more and even bigger strokes. The good news: The people whose diet looked most like the Mediterranean diet were 36 percent less likely to have these mini-strokes. In previous research, Scarmeas found people who ate Mediterranean diets were 40 percent less likely to suffer from Alzheimer's disease compared to their counterparts who ate mostly Western diets.

Scarmeas doesn't know why but speculates the Mediterranean diet somehow protects the blood vessels, reducing plaque and clotting. That makes sense because cardiologists have long known that diets high in fruits, vegetables, fish and olive oil, essentially the Mediterranean diet, benefit the heart.

Cardiologist Elizabeth Klodas is an official with the American College of Cardiology.

Dr.�ELIZABETH KLODAS (Cardiologist, American College of Cardiology): Their bad cholesterols are lower, their good cholesterols are higher, their triglyceride levels are lower. They also tend to have lower weights, tend to have better blood sugar control, and if you put all those things together, those all are favorable from a heart-protective perspective.

NEIGHMOND: No one can really say exactly which part of the Mediterranean diet is most useful. It could be the high fiber, says Klodas, like the fruits and vegetables, or it could be the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish. Neurologist Scarmeas says it could be the combination of everything.

Dr.�SCARMEAS: So for example, if fish is good, we do not know whether it's the particular polyunsaturated fatty acids that are included in fish oil that is the beneficial part of the fish itself or if vegetables are beneficial. We do not know whether it's a particular antioxidant of a particular vegetable that is beneficial. So we just know that certain foods are beneficial, and maybe their combination is even more beneficial.

NEIGHMOND: Scarmeas' research group is working to figure out which part of the diet is most useful, and he cautions that the findings linking the Mediterranean diet to fewer strokes and less dementia is only an observation and needs to be repeated in further studies before firm conclusions can be drawn.

Patti Neighmond, NPR News.

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