Those who eat Mediterranean-style diets, featuring leafy green vegetables and minimal amounts of meat, are more likely to maintain better thinking skills as they age, findings from a study carried out at the University of Edinburgh have suggested.
Researchers carried out a series of cognitive tests on more than 500 participants in their late 70s.
These tests and a questionnaire on eating habits revealed those consuming lower amounts of red meat and higher portions of green vegetables had better cognitive functioning in old age.
Among the participants, who were also part of the Lothian Birth Cohort 1936 study and the Scottish Mental Survey of 1947, a total of 350 people also underwent an MRI brain scan to allow researchers to gain further insights into their brain structure.
Following these tests, researchers used statistical modelling to explore associations between a participant’s diet, cognitive functions and brain health in later life.
Those found to be adhering more closely to a Mediterranean-style diet presented a correlation with higher scores in the study’s memory and thinking tests, but the study did not find a link between such diets and better brain health.
While those who recorded eating more meals and food associated with a Mediterranean diet showed higher cognitive function even when considering factors such as smoking, physical activity and childhood IQ, signifiers of healthy brain ageing showed no differences between those who adhere to a Mediterranean diet and those who did not.
The research, supported by both Age UK – as part of their Disconnected Mind project – and the Medical Research Council, is one of the first studies to test both cognitive functions and neuroimaging outcomes in the same sample.
The research shows how significant maintaining a healthy diet can be for better thinking and cognitive skills in later life.
Dr Janie Corley, from the University of Edinburgh’s School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences, said: “Eating more green leafy vegetables and cutting down on red meat might be two key food elements that contribute to the benefits of the Mediterranean-style diet.
"In our sample, the positive relationship between a Mediterranean diet and thinking skills is not accounted for by having a healthier brain structure, as one might expect.
“Though it’s possible there may be other structural or functional brain correlates with this measure of diet, or associations in specific regions of the brain, rather than the whole brain, as measured here.”
Since 1999, researchers have been working with the Lothian Birth Cohorts to chart how a person’s thinking power changes over their lifetime.
The study, published in full in Experimental Gerontology, is available at https://doi.org/10.1016/j.exger.2020.111117.
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