By this point, you’ve heard of the Mediterranean diet. The popular eating lifestyle is rich in brain food like leafy greens and fish and contains less poultry and red meat than a typical Western diet.
Unsurprisingly, research on the Mediterranean diet has found it to have a number of health benefits. A recent study, published in Experimental Gerontology, found that daily consumption of extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), an essential component of the Mediterranean diet, might be the key to helping the body fight Alzheimer’s.
Researchers observed that study participants with mild cognitive impairment had reduced markers of Alzheimer’s after being administered EVOO on a regular basis. The reason? It likely had to do with the oil’s antioxidant properties.
“When we look at the brain of someone with Alzheimer’s under the microscope, we can see abnormal accumulations of two key proteins—amyloid-beta and tau,” says Carolyn Fredericks, MD, a Yale Medicine neurologist who specializes in Alzheimer’s disease. “We know that oxidative stress can make these proteins accumulate faster, so it makes sense that antioxidants, which reduce or block the impact of oxidative stress, could be helpful to slow this process.”
This clinical trial involved 84 participants, which, while promising, may not be enough to determine whether olive oil alone can help prevent neurodegenerative disorders.
“I think we need to wait for large, randomized controlled studies to be confident that any individual food or food component can prevent or fight neurodegeneration,” explains Dr. Fredericks. However, she points out that larger studies have shown us that the Mediterranean diet as a whole can decrease cognitive decline associated with aging. And though it’s not yet clear if and how olive oil protects our brain health, this new research is still promising.
“Smaller studies like this one are exciting because they give us more information about specific nutrients,” says Fredericks. “A caveat here is that when we have tried to look at specific nutrients or components of the Mediterranean diet to see if, on their own, they can reduce the risk of memory decline, we generally haven’t found convincing results. For instance, studies of omega-3 consumption, vitamin E, and others have not shown any effect in large studies.”
Because it’s hard to say how specific components of the diet affect our brain health, it may be best to make sure to incorporate all the aspects of the Mediterranean diet instead of focusing on just one.
“My best advice to patients at this point is that following a Mediterranean diet in a more holistic way is the best thing they can do to prevent cognitive decline and that the benefits seem to be related to the whole foods and the combination of the whole foods in this diet, rather than to any one specific nutrient that we can isolate and put in a capsule,” Fredericks says.
For more, be sure to check out The Unexpected Way Your Brain May be Causing You to Overeat, Says Research, and then, don’t miss 15 Best Mediterranean Diet Recipes for inspiration on how to get started!