Mediterranean Diet Reduces Dementia Risk, Despite Family History: Study

A new study finds the Mediterranean diet — known for including a way array of accessible and delicious foods, like fish, whole grains, veggies and legumes — can lower the risk of dementia for people who have a family history of the disease, and for people who don’t.

The journal of BMC Medicine study tracked the eating habits and health of more than 60,000 people 60 years old and above for roughly nine years. The study authors found almost 900 of the participants developed dementia, and those that ate only a Mediterranean diet had almost 25% less of a risk of developing dementia, NBC News medical contributor Dr. Natalie Azar told TODAY.

A May 2021 study of 500 seniors had similar results. It found that those who followed a Mediterranean diet were less likely to experience brain shrinking and had reduced levels of abnormal proteins linked to Alzheimer’s disease.

But the most recent study also assessed how the Mediterranean diet can reduce dementia risk in people with a family history of the condition. Previous research indicates that if you have a close relative with Alzheimer’s, the most common type of dementia, your risk increases about 30%, according to Harvard Health.

The study authors calculated a genetic risk score for participants based on 250,000 genetic variants associated with Alzheimer’s. The research found that those whose diet aligned most closely with the Mediterranean diet had a 23% smaller chance of developing dementia over the study’s nine years than those who adhered to the diet the least.

It turns out that genetic risk “didn’t even make a difference, which is really encouraging because you think that certain things are predetermined, but this is the kind of thing that we can all actually implement in our life,” Azar explained.

“The main take home message from this study is that, even for individuals with a higher genetic risk, consuming a more Mediterranean-like diet could reduce the likelihood of developing dementia,” the study’s lead author Oliver Shannon, a lecturer in human nutrition and aging at Newcastle University, told NBC News.

The findings underscore the importance of sticking to a nutrient-dense, whole food-packed diet to boost your brain health and promote healthy aging.

What is the Mediterranean diet?

The Mediterranean diet, often called MD or MedDiet for short, is filled with nutrient-dense plant-based foods and healthy fats. According to Azar, this means a diet heavy in these foods:

  • Fresh fruits: blueberries, apples, oranges, pears, figs
  • Vegetables: broccoli, carrots, kale, tomatoes, fennel
  • Whole grains: brown rice, quinoa, bulgur
  • Nuts and seeds: walnuts, almonds, pistachios, pumpkin seeds
  • Legumes: lentils, beans, peas
  • Fish: wild salmon, tuna, sardines
  • Extra virgin olive oil

A Mediterranean diet is also naturally low in sugar, sodium, highly processed foods, refined carbs, saturated fats and fatty or processed meats. “You want to limit or eat in moderation red meat, eggs, poultry, cheese and sweets,” said Azar.

But at the same time, the Mediterranean diet is not about restriction — it should be flexible, accessible and focused on the pleasure of eating and enjoying meals, TODAY previously reported.

The health benefits of this diet are well-documented, and it is consistently ranked as one of the best science-backed diets out there by doctors.

In addition to being associated with a longer lifespan, research suggests this whole food and nutrient-packed diet can reduce inflammation, protect against heart disease and stroke, lower cholesterol and promote healthy aging.

“It’s helps your heart health and helps the blood vessels in the brain — we don’t know exactly why, but nonetheless this is very compelling,” said Azar.

A recent study which looked at over 500 postmortem autopsies found that seniors who stuck to a Mediterranean diet showed less brain plaques or toxic buildups of abnormal proteins (beta-amyloids), which are thought to play a major role in Alzheimer’s disease, TODAY previously reported.

In addition to sticking to a healthy diet, other lifestyle factors can help slow cognitive decline and reduce the risk of developing dementia, said Azar. These include: getting adequate sleep, controlling your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood glucose, and staying physically and mentally active.

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